Henry Kasdon learned to break dance on his mom's tennis court. Now he's a dance teacher who is astute enough about marketing to change the names of moves from the Brooklyn to the Brookline. He is a successful dancer; he's getting ready to switch careers to trial law. “I want my kids to be taken care of,” he says. Not that he has any now, but Kasdon is a man with a plan.

The odds are, recent college grads will be working for the next fifty years. That's a long time. No one expects to stay in the same job for fifty years, and probably not even the same career. So why not have a starter career before you get down to the business of making enough money to buy a home or raise a family?

A starter career is similar to a starter marriage but without the pain of divorce. Pamela Paul, author of Starter Marriage and the Future of Matrimony, says, “Once you're at the end of a starter marriage, you realize all your mistakes, misperceptions and false expectations that you had, and you can make better decision next time.” And the same is true for careers. Pick a starter career with the best of intentions, but be ready to learn from your shortcomings to make the second one even better.

A starter career is serious business. This is not a McJob to pay the bills. You might need one of those in your life, but a McJob is not a conscious, career decision so much as an acknowledgement that starving is painful. A starter career aims to accomplish something; otherwise you're just spinning your wheels, biding time.

A starter career should have meaning to you. Sonja Lyubomirsky, assistant professor of psychology at University of California at Riverside, describes meaningful work as a job that meets a core goal. “People have important goals that come from inside themselves, for example personal growth, community or relationships. Jobs that allow you to meet intrinsic goals will lead to more happiness.”

Kasdon is audibly elated when he describes how he's grown as a dancer and how he has helped other people to learn, which is what makes his dancing a starter career rather than just a sideshow to pay bills.

It should be too risky to do later. Barbara Reinhold, director of the Executive Education for Women program at Smith College, generally recommends that if you can squelch your spending, you should make some money before you launch a low-paying career; if nothing else, creative juices work better when they are not diverted to financial crises. But in many cases, there is no time to wait. For Kasdon, we're talking knees. A break dancing career will not be available to him physically later in life. For others, like math rockers, the cool factor precludes breakout success as a forty-year-old, so you should get out your CD earlier than that.

Paul says that most starter marriages are to college sweethearts. Read: Married for love and not earning potential. And that's what you should be thinking with your starter career. The money can come later — the second time around. Jason Cole, managing director of Abacus Wealth Partners, a national financial planning firm, says when asked about people in their twenties: “We encourage people to pursue their passions. They'll have a lot of years to earn money. Sure you'll lose something by forgoing the ability to put money away, but you need to balance what is most important to you.” (Savor these words because you will not qualify for any more advice from Abacus Wealth Partners until your net worth reaches $1 million.)

You might think a starter career is risky, but there are dangers to taking time to make some money before you do what you love. Reinhold warns that a good paying career straight out of the gate leads to “golden handcuff syndrome”. She writes that, “You have to be careful not to grow your tastes with your income”? anesthetic spending is the phenomenon where you spend and spend to try to forget that the lucrative work you’re doing doesn’t really fit you.”

For those of you not totally convinced of the financial genius of a starter career, take solace in the fact that even if you don't begin saving for retirement until you're 25, you'll be ten years ahead of the average baby boomer.

9 replies
  1. Wendy
    Wendy says:

    A starter career is a great concept for getting past the “I don’t know what I want to be when I grow up stage” (like CrankMama, I’m in my mid 30s and still not sure what I want to be). However, with people changing jobs regularly throughout their lives, maybe there isn’t a starter career and a “real career” dichotomy. Everytime you leave a job or take on a new one, perhaps you should ask the questions Penelope raises for evaluating the starter career — what worked, what didn’t, what do I want in my new role.

    So, I guess you can have a “starter career” at any age, and any stage in your professional development.

  2. Penelope Trunk
    Penelope Trunk says:

    Wendy and Crank, maybe the way I think about money is too limiting, but…

    I was thinking that a starter career is something you can only do when you do not have a family/mortgage to support. Otherwise it might seem too high risk.

    Sort of in the same way that a starter marriage is one thing if there are no kids, but a big mess with children in the mix. What do you think?

  3. Wendy
    Wendy says:

    Well, certainly changing careers with family responsibilities is tougher than without. But the concept of a starter career can work at any stage when a change is required (whether from college and childhood to the working adult world; or from what job/career to another). Your message is “don’t worry about envisioning 15 years down the road, but just the next 2.” That’s a good message for anyone lost in a career crisis.

    Also, look at you and your family. If I’ve read and remembered your blogs well, both you and your husband have changed careers and looked to pursue passions after having earned good money and had high income expectations in your younger years. I’m sure it’s tougher to go this way than the other way, but you’re proving that it can work, aren’t you?

  4. Penelope Trunk
    Penelope Trunk says:

    Well, that’s an interesting point. My husband and I have changed careers since we’ve had kids, but for the most part the changes were expressly to reconfigure life to accommodate our kids.

    I think that the more responsiblity you have in life the less likely you are to do a starter career — one that you know is a dead end but you want to try anyway.

  5. Liz
    Liz says:

    Hey! Found your blog through Three New York Women. Interesting post. For the past four years I’ve been involved in a starter career. You’re right it is very much so like a starter marriage. It’s totally changed my expectations, hopes, and requirements for a career. I’m hoping I can make a smooth transition into something else very soon.

  6. Heather
    Heather says:

    An interesting idea, but now that students are graduating with more debt, I think a lot of them are planning to make money first, then “do what they love” later. I know, in direct conflict to the family-mortgage timeline. . .

    I graduated with 30k in debt, and while I tried to pick a career I wouldn’t hate, the more artistic jobs I might have found “fulfilling” just wouldn’t pay the rent and my starter-baby: college loans.

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