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Why a Career Doesn’t Define You

Stop thinking a nine to five is who you are.

Many people define themselves by the entries on their resumes. Being career-focused, ambitious and on the fast track to success is a great way to move through life. However, as pension offerings dry up and more millennials turn to job-hopping and a gig economy to make ends meet, the meaning of “career” is changing.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median employee tenure in 2018 was only 4.2 years, a decrease of almost half a year from 2014. For most people, their current job doesn’t represent their whole career—it may only be a temporary stop along a long path that takes them sideways, up, down, left and right. And while retirement is still a worthy goal, achieving a full sense of self from one’s career is not a necessity along the way.

A New Model of Working: The Modern Career Path

Total career satisfaction is rarer than most might imagine. According to job satisfaction statistics, only about 45% of today’s workers find themselves either satisfied or extremely satisfied with their jobs. That leaves the majority of workers with some level of dissatisfaction with their lot in life—at least their work life.

That may be why so many millennials are hesitant to define themselves by their careers. The modern career path can be full of twists and turns. While company pensions and multidecade loyalty dominated the late 20th century, today’s workers are plenty happy to change jobs. In fact, according to those statistics, about one-fifth of today’s workers are even looking to change careers entirely.

How to Feel Satisfied Across Multiple Careers

Decoupling one’s identity from a career might be easier than you think. There are plenty of ways to feel fulfilled by work and lifestyle even without one continuous career.

  • Turn a career into service. Former Treasury Secretary Jack Lew once said, “I think there’s no higher calling in terms of a career than public service.” Bill Gates turned a career of acquiring vast amounts of wealth into a foundation that transformed the world for many of its most impoverished people. Finding a way to turn a career into service can lead to more fulfillment down the road.

  • Fund your own retirement. After the Great Recession and the stock market crash in 2008, many people find themselves less willing to invest in a single source of retirement funding—at least when it comes to their career prospects. Utilizing a Roth IRA or even a solo 401(k), many of today’s enterprising millennials are fully capable of funding their own retirements—and bringing their retirement accounts with them when they change jobs and/or careers.

  • Make the most of your money. Find ways to enhance the perks and benefits of the work you already perform. For example, if you’ve frequently traveled, you might want to secure a credit card that will yield rewards for those miles. Put the high costs of moving on credit cards as well to get redeemable points.

Finding Satisfaction Beyond the Career

While job satisfaction has a major role to play in our daily lives, it’s not the only factor that determines our overall happiness. According to Psychology Today, the No. 1 factor for overall happiness is actually the feeling of autonomy—”the feeling that your life—its activities and habits—are self-chosen and self-enforced.”

That means there are a number of career options for anyone who wants to increase their autonomy—and not all of them depend on having the ideal job. For the purpose of happiness, it’s not your career that defines you, but the feeling that you’re in the driver’s seat. Anyone can improve their autonomy in a number of ways. For example:

  • Work on building a resume for stronger future opportunities. Oftentimes, it’s not the job that hurts so much as it is the role of feeling “stuck.”

  • Set a budget and determine your savings goals. Bettering your own financial situation increases autonomy. A well-funded emergency fund can also cushion you from the effects of losing a job, which in turn creates more autonomy as it relates to your career.

  • Exercise more control over your personal life. Rather than following the whims of others, it’s important to cultivate a sense of boundaries and personal responsibility when it comes to issues like health, relationships, and personal finance.

A good career can be a major part of anyone’s life—but when done right, no single career has to define one’s passion or identity. That’s true in any career, especially in the modern age.

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