Hating a first job out of college can make anyone feel like a failure. But your early twenties are the best time to take a mulligan.
An irony in my career, given that I write about money, is that my first job at age 22 paid more than my current job, at 29.
Yet I love my job today, just as I am certain that quitting that first job—a financial management consultant position I grew to hate after only a couple of months—was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.
I was lucky: The reason I disliked my job wasn’t an unsafe workplace, unkind boss, or unfair pay. I was simply bored by a position that turned out to be less interesting and meaningful than advertised.
But the thing about boredom is it can really eat away at you—at your sense of worth and your enthusiasm to get up in the morning. When I found myself constantly looking at the clock, daydreaming about the weekend, and, eventually, crying in the bathroom at the very thought of coming in the next day, I knew I needed a change. So I lined up a teaching job in China and gave my notice, after only two months at the consultancy.
As short a stint as that was, recent research suggests that an increasing number of millennials are in the same boat. That is, they are spending less time at their first jobs after graduation than young people have in the past. That trend has accelerated even within the last year, with fewer graduates staying at jobs past the one-year mark—and a growing number leaving after three months (or less):
Why might that be? Well, for one, research shows that only 38% of young adults under age 30 express deep satisfaction with their jobs—compared with 63% for people age 65 and up. This might seem unsurprising at first glance, since older people have had more time to build confidence and get established in their careers.
But millennials aren’t just feeling unfulfilled because they are low on the totem pole; the current job market is also to blame. More than 40% of recent college graduates say they weren’t able to find a job in their desired field, according to a recent McKinsey study. The survey also found that almost half of graduates from four-year colleges report being in jobs that don’t require a four-year degree.
“Many in the millennial generation are taking jobs that they are over-qualified for and thus are eager to move on when something better appears,” says Bob Funk, CEO of Express, the firm that conducted the job duration survey. Plus, he adds, “we’ve seen a decrease in employees’ commitment to employers as a higher value is placed on personal advancement.”
All of this is to say that if you’re unhappy at your first job and are contemplating quitting, you’re not alone.
Still, figuring out when and how to make a move is tricky. Here are three tips on making a smooth switch, from former hiring manager Alison Green, author of askamanager.org.
1. Be honest with yourself. Green has spoken with workers who have stuck around in bad jobs, despite serious problems at work like sexual harassment, because of fears about money, security, and student loans. “If you are truly miserable, you should trust your gut and not be too afraid to lean on savings, a spouse, family, or part-time work instead,” says Green. “For those who don’t have that luxury, keep your eye on the light at the end of the tunnel and direct your energy into finding a better job in the meantime.”
It’s also worth doing a little soul searching as soon as you start to feel unhappy, to see whether the problem truly lies with your boss or the position—or if the real culprit is your attitude. One litmus test is to try to behave differently for a week and figure out if that makes you happier. For example, if you normally sit back and wait for assignments, speak up and volunteer. Conversely, if you’re typically too willing to please, try to dial back on how much responsibility you’re taking on at once.
2. Line up another job before you quit—but not just any job. When you quit a first job out of college, says Green, very few future employers are going to hold that against you, especially if you’re able to articulate what you learned from the experience. The danger, however, is that when you’re desperate to leave a job, you might be tempted to take the first new offer you get, even if it’s wrong for you, too.
“It’s okay to quit once, ” Green says. “You kind of get one freebie. But you can’t let it become a pattern.”
3. Leave gracefully. It’s important to be upfront with your employer and give the company time to prepare for your departure. If you are respectful and help out with the transition, you should be fine. “A good employer shouldn’t want you to stay if you’re unhappy with the fit,” says Green.
As for questions from future prospective bosses, post-college jobs of six months or less need not to be added to your resume, says Green. More than that and employers might wonder about the gap.
Watch real people talk about their best and worst bosses in the video below: