The worst career advice parents give their kids

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For many young people today, the most trusted source of career advice is their parents. Unfortunately, a lot of parents are giving a lot of misguided advice to their kids.

Today’s workplace is very different from the one baby boomers navigated. But often they don’t realize that, and think the “classic” advice still applies. It doesn’t. Here are the five worst pieces of advice that parents dole out.

Get a graduate degree
It used to be that people went to graduate school as a surefire way to achieve the American Dream. Today, graduate school generally makes young people less employable, not more employable.

For example, people who get a graduate degree in the humanities have little chance of getting a tenured teaching job.

And when it comes to an MBA, the value of the degree plummets if it’s not from a top school, even though the cost of the degree continues to skyrocket. So instead of opening doors for you, the degree in many ways forces you to settle for a job that pays well enough to pay back your student loans.

Law school results in one of the few graduate degrees that can make you more employable. Unfortunately, it makes you more employable in a profession in which people are unhappy. Law school rewards perfectionism, while law practice rewards good sales skills.

This dichotomy, combined with the reality that practicing law isn’t all that glamorous, means that law school should be something you do only if you’re driven to — it’s not the safety net indecisive career seekers wish it was.

Don’t job hop
The advice parents give about job hopping comes from the days when human resources people were in charge of job interviews, and hiring managers ruled the world. But today, job hopping is standard. Most people will have eight jobs before they turn 30, and that’s a good thing.

Young candidates these days have more power than interviewers because there’s a shortage of people to fill entry-level jobs. Unemployment among the college educated is less than 2 percent, young people routinely have more than one job offer, and 70 percent of hiring managers say they feel like they need to convince candidates to take their jobs. Clearly, this is a time when young people are in charge.

Job hoppers are bad for companies because high turnover is expensive, but switching jobs a lot is very good for employees. It builds skills faster, constructs a network more effectively, and helps you figure out what you like and what you don’t like. Most important, regularly switching jobs helps you maintain passion in your career — which, in the end, benefits companies as much as it benefits the passionate workers cycling through them.

Don’t ask about time off until you have the job
Everyone has a personal life that exists separately from their job. You can’t schedule your cousin’s bar mitzvah around a product launch, and you can’t clear your calendar before you take a new job.

So when you’re figuring out which job to take, be upfront about what sort of time you expect to be taking for yourself. If you want Tuesdays off for kickboxing class, then say so. If you have a vacation planned for two weeks after the proposed start date, then say that. Some jobs have unmovable start dates, and sometimes your personal life will preclude taking a job.
That’s OK. Why bother with the absurd job-interview song-and-dance where you pretend that your personal life doesn’t matter, and that only getting the job matters? You wouldn’t want to work for anyone who had that attitude, so why pretend to have it yourself?

Don’t have gaps in your résumé
It’s so common for people to take time off to explore after earning their degree that universities have people who specialize in helping students find after-college non-work/non-school learning opportunities. As long as you’re learning and growing — and not endangering your life — then gaps in your résumé are merely you finding another way to discover the world. In fact, you’ll be a better employee for that.

The people who don’t flounder at all after college and go straight into a career they stick with make up less than 12 percent of the population today. Research shows that they’re generally less creative in picking a path that’s right for them, and more willing to take paths someone else has established. But each of us needs different things from our work — we have to make our own paths, and we need breathing room to do that.

If there are no gaps in your résumé, it probably means you didn’t take any time in your life for reflecting. Sure, you can do your reflecting in the shower or during a boring meeting or on an invigorating run. But grand thinking requires grand amounts of time.

Often, we need to separate from everyday life in order to see possibilities far outside what we’re doing. So make gaps, and talk about them in job interviews like the learning experiences they are.

Earn enough money to pay rent and buy food
One of the smartest career choices you can make after graduation is to move back in with your parents. This isn’t possible for everyone, but those who can do it have a distinct advantage in their entrance into adult life. It’s why more than half of college graduates are choosing to move back home.

At present, entry-level jobs don’t pay enough to cover student loans, health insurance premiums, food, and rent in the kinds of cities young people like to live. Parents will say, “When I was a kid, everyone could pay their rent when they got their first job.”

That’s probably true, but since that time, real wages have fallen, school costs have outpaced inflation, and health care costs are astronomical for people who don’t get insurance through work — which is a large portion of fully employed young people.

Young people who need to support themselves without any help from family are necessarily limited in career choices — they have to have a job that pays well in order to live. That’s why 60 percent of graduating seniors move back in with their parents after college.

But the best way to figure out what you really love doing is to try things and worry about pay later, when you know what you like. Moving back in with your parents allows you to take a job purely because it’s a good opportunity for personal growth and self-knowledge.

Many baby boomers stayed in careers they didn’t like for 20 years. A good way to not repeat this in the next generation is to explore many careers before you choose one.


The people who don’t flounder at all after college or an online MBA and go straight into a career they stick with make up less than 12 percent of the population today.

19 replies
  1. Susan
    Susan says:

    Amen!! The job market has changed so much that most parents are clueless about how it works in 2007. The only part I would disagree with is that you don’t have to earn enough money to pay rent and buy food (appears in the Yahoo! column and not on here).

    I understand the sentiment, but I don’t think employers should be able to get away with expecting good work for sub-standard salaries. My first year out of college I worked 60 hour weeks, lived in a cramped 4-bedroom in a questionable neighborhood and mostly ate rice and pasta. When I asked for a raise they explained that entry-level salaries are calculated with the assumption that parents are subsidizing the rent and other living expenses. I found that offensive, so I left (among other reasons).

    Determined to make it work, I now have decent apartment in a (still) expensive city, a job I like that pays 30% more and I never had to ask my parents for subsidy because I budgeted carefully and refused to compromise on salary.

  2. Allen
    Allen says:

    Things have definitely changed since I entered the job market in 1983. Structural shifts in business methods and consolidations in corporate America have changed the career marketplace entirely.

    But the relationship between responsibilities of employers and responsibilities of employees remains a critical dynamic. Jack Welch was not all wrong pointing out that you have to have some chits in the basket before you ask for special favors and that honoring the company’s ethos and culture are as important as making your numbers. Moreover, no employee is worthy of getting a paycheck just for showing up. As I tell my teenager, in school and in life you have to do the extra credit work to get where you want to go.

    Still, employers traditionally held all the cards in the relationship and employees are finally getting some cards of their own. The mantra of my generation was: this is what I have to do in order to afford what I want to do. Kudos to the current generation of new employees who creatively find ways to increasingly get paid to do what they want to do! Work hard. Play hard.

  3. Jacqui
    Jacqui says:

    All great advice, but I take issue with a couple statements.

    First, I don’t think that you’ll necessarily be a better employee for taking time off and creating resume gaps. I’ve “found myself” by working different imperfect jobs and finding out what I liked and what didn’t. And this type of exploration is a little more financially responsible.

    Also, I definitely disagree with saying that those who live with their parents after college “have a distinct advantage in their entrance into adult life.” They may have a distinct financial advantage, but here is where it stops.

    How are you learning about being an adult when you’re rent-free and utility-free or even paying way under the going rate? That leaves a lot of expendable income that keeps you from having to set priorities and learn what it’s like to live with limits. These are some of the experiences that have really taught me about myself and about what life as an adult really is.

    Yes, I may have tight finances for a few more years than those who chose to live at home, but I wouldn’t trade my experiences and truly feel like they give me the upperhand.

  4. Pirate Jo
    Pirate Jo says:

    Ugh, I would have slept under a bridge before I continued living with my parents. They did not treat me with respect or treat me like an adult until I moved out and began to live independently – and maybe they did that on purpose, to make sure I *DID* move out. No worries there – I couldn’t wait.

    I was a Gen X’er who got a McJob paying $7 an hour after college (even with an accounting degree), which was pretty common back then. I lived in a rat-trap one-bedroom apartment and still had to get a second job to pay for it. I finally dug myself out of debt, mostly because I was too busy working to spend money. But I certainly learned the difference between wants and needs.

  5. Patrick
    Patrick says:

    I would say that the majority of your advice is probably right on – if the company is managed, the supervisor you are working for and the “hiring agent” are all between the ages of 25 and 40. If not, I would suggest this is not the best advice.
    I would also venture to say that that the author has yet to be placed into the situation of advising her own recent college graduates…

  6. Kathy
    Kathy says:

    Move back in with your parents?? You’ve got to be kidding. Not in my house. I just paid for your 4 years of college, you have NO debt. Get a job, get a roommate or two and live your life. Struggle a little, struggle a lot, feel good about YOUR accomplishments.

  7. Steve
    Steve says:

    Your statements about law school are off target. The reality is that Law School, like almost all school, value attention spans; the most important skill that helps to digest large amounts of information. The practice of law, however, does not value “sales skills,” but problem solving. The reality is that very few educational programs teach real problem solving, partially because so few of the teachers are themselves affective problem solvers.

    As a practicing lawyer for over 10 years, I can say there are very few jobs that provide the challenges that come with solving multiple complex problems across many different disciplines. In addition, the practice of law provides an excellent living; one of the best without having to put your personal capital at risk.

    There are unhappy people in the practice of law. In my opinion, the reason for this is that the best law students rarely make the best lawyers. However, the professional itself is alive and well. I encourage anyone interested to give it a shot.

  8. Alan
    Alan says:


    Could you expand on what you wrote in the last paragraph about the best students don’t make the best lawyers? That statement counters what the blogger originally said about having the best grades from the best schools to be successful. I do think that in any profession, the best students don’t necessarily make the best workers.

  9. Karen
    Karen says:


    I’ll try to say this nicely. This is the biggest load of horse pucky I’ve ever seen. You are not a hiring manager or a CEO. Please stop pretending that you live in the real job world. This stuff is so damaging to people who are really looking for a career.

  10. Alice Bachini-Smith
    Alice Bachini-Smith says:

    Wow- I really love this post, and find the ideas on this blog generally to be consistently very pertinent, insightful and applicable (not to mention- free). Maybe those who feel damaged can wander off and heal elsewhere?

  11. Steve
    Steve says:


    Be good a good student in law school takes an entirely different skill set than actually representing clients. The practice of law values problem solving and creative solutions. It is the application of dilligence to intuition. Acquiring good grades in law school, as well as most schools, require an incredibly long attention span(the ability to spend hundreds of hours in a library reading). This skill has very little application in the real world.

    For whatever reason, law firms tend to hire the law students with the best grades. This paradoxically promotes the individuals who are least prepared to deal with the issues they will face. These individuals are invariably unhappy, and with the golden handcuffs of a large salary, find it hard to leave the professional.


    * * * * * *
    Thanks for this comment, Steve.  You give great, specific examples to describe the law school problem. I bet this comment will help a lot of people in their decision-making process.


  12. Mike Ramm
    Mike Ramm says:

    Well, I generally agree with most of the points but I would like to point out that they may not be valid outside the U.S.

    For example, in Bulgaria where I live the cost of the higher education (we use the term university) is much lower than in the States which makes it worth the time and the price spent for the knowledge, the experience and the contacts you make during the study.

    I cannot agree with the last point too although the arguments are reasonable. Our culture is more family-oriented and if you stay with your parents you will always be a baby for them and they won’t let you grow as a person and live your own life.

    It’s very interesting for me why there are so many negative comments on the Yahoo site. People feel threatened by these simple advises and respond so harshly. It seems they are destroying their hopes and dreams they couldn’t fulfill and have imposed on their children.

  13. Laura Lewis
    Laura Lewis says:

    You obviously do not have children old enough to graduate from college. As the parent of 1 graduate and 1 college junior, I can tell you that moving back in with parents is awful advice. Oh sure it may be easier for the graduate, but what about the parents. Maybe just maybe they don’t want their kids moving back in. Maybe the parents are happy to have an empty nest after (for me) 37 years of parenting. Maybe just maybe the parents want their freedom back and do not want an extra person mooching off them any more……My children were all raised to be independent and 3 of them are supporting themselves, and the youngest has no intention of living at home after she graduates. Of course we help them financially when they need it, but I personally do not want any of them living at home again. 37 years of parenting is enough!!!!

    * * * * * * *

    Laura. You say that you won’t let your kids live at home but you’ll help them financially. A lot of parents cannot afford to help their kids financially, beyond letting their kids move back home. Letting kids move back home is free, and 58% of parents are doing it. I’m sure many parents would prefer to give their kids money for their own place instead of giving them a room in the house. But most parents can’t afford that.


  14. Joe
    Joe says:

    Great article as always, good advice, and ignore all the trolls on yahoo Penelope. Speak your mind and dont let anybody tell you that you dont have enough perspective.

  15. Stacey
    Stacey says:

    Penelope, I trust your judgement on each of these items independently, but it seems that points 3 and 5 are somewhat contradictory. Point 3 indicates that it’s a buyer’s market where recent grads have a lot of leverage in hiring negotiations. Point 5 indicates that entry level positions cannot and will not pay enough to facilitate independent living. I can see where this is another situation where one can pick time or pick money, but it still seems contradictory because most people would pick money, thus resolving in part issue #5.

    As for people moving back home… I just graduated, so I can give personal anecdotal evidence on this point. I’d say that most of my friends are moving home *for a brief period of time* immediately following graduation. Many of them have not spent significant amounts of time with their families in 4 years and miss that interaction. At the same time, many of them are not getting jobs with “adequate compensation” that would allow them to live individually. However, it seems that the people with crappy paychecks didn’t really put much effort into finding “grown-up jobs”. (My favorite example is the former roomate who graduated in the top of her class as an English major and only looked for jobs in the daycare industry.) These two factors combined indicates that a lot of these people don’t necessarily percieve themselves as being independent adults anyways. Add in the new social phenomenon of Helicopter Parents and you see how this generation works. I’d also like to go on the record saying that this apparent “baby-fication” of this generation is probably positive in that it indicates a strengthening of family ties and increased levels of familial social support. This leads to cultural continuity and countries with stronger family bonding typically have lower crime and suicide rates. (Suddenly, I sense that I have spun off into a tangent.)

    I do have one question about the 58% statistic: how does that number account for students who marry immediately following graduation? This is still a common phenomenon, at least in my region, and I would expect most newlywed couples to form independent households. So, if the 58% is only single students, then probably only a third of all college graduates moves back home with their parents. But if the 58% includes marrried students, then half a generation moves back home after graduating. (I’d also be interested to see the statistics on how long people are spending at home following graduation.)

    * * * * * *
    The average age for women to get married is 27 and men is 28. I think people who get married right out of college are relatively rare.


  16. Stacey
    Stacey says:

    It doesn’t seem to be rare but that could also just be personal perspective. It could also just be a regional phenomenon.

  17. Ken Wolman
    Ken Wolman says:

    Says Penelope: *”If there are no gaps in your résumé, it probably means you didn't take any time in your life for reflecting. Sure, you can do your reflecting in the shower or during a boring meeting or on an invigorating run. But grand thinking requires grand amounts of time.”*

    Not always. We both know gaps are not necessarily benign, and many managers and recruiters still look for the unbroken march to the summit as a sign of saleability. I chose the honesty route and I paid for it. I had a résumé with gaps at the end: the point where I dove out of corporate work into massage school, a psycho ward, county jail, and then a supermarket. Obviously I don’t want any of this on my résumé. I had a canned explanation but it didn’t necessarily wash. So the hole stayed there, and it kept me from being submitted to at least one place: they told me as much without knowing the real story. In effect I was told to pad, i.e., to lie.

  18. Stéphanie
    Stéphanie says:

    Parents also often want their kids to get one good job related to the field they stydied and stick to it for a long time. They think that if you get a job that’s not related to what you studied, then you won’t have a good career, you’re not in the right direction, etc. Same goes with part-time jobs, freelancing and auto-entrepreneurship. It just doesn’t sound as serious to them as what they used to do/still do.

    It can create a lot of anxiety, because finding a good position is not easy, and with long studies and a lot of choice, you might well end up not wanting to work in the field you studied. Furthermore, thinking you need to stick to one thing even if you don’t like it means adulthood is totally scary and will make you unhappy. Not a good way to see the rest of your life…

  19. yawny
    yawny says:

    yeh, I never really reveived much bad advice from my “parents”. Just none at all.

    I’ve gone/go through fases where i blame them, but as a 24 year old i can see their histories and understand why they are who they are now.
    Still… If i new what i new now, which is that i don’t know anything at all, I would have possibly tried to seek advice many many years earlier.

    Either way. good advice. bad advice… think for your self and determine the evidence that the advice given is backed by. Regardless of who it is.

    Regards, an uneducated/unemployed fool who has no evidence to back his advice.

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