The new post-college prestige job is retail

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It used to be that the best post-college jobs were the ones that gave you a sense of security (law, medicine) or financial windfall (banking). But the finance industry and grad-school route are both dead ends at this point.

The New York Times reports that we're experiencing a sea change in the career department because the former favorites are no longer prestigious, and new choices, like teaching and government service, are rising in popularity. But, as college grads contemplate their options for June, and twenty-somethings watch pink slips fly, here's something to consider: The prestige job of the new millennium is waiting tables and folding shirts. That's right. If you are in your 20s, you should try retail. Here's why.

Retail enables an honest approach to adulthood
Emerging adulthood makes life in one's 20s more difficult than ever before in history. Being lost is important in terms of navigating to adulthood. And the most dangerous thing you can do in your 20s is try to get around the discomfort of being lost by over-committing to a career. You will change careers five times in your life. You will depend solely on yourself to build your own skill set and forge your own path. So give yourself time to figure out what's best for you.

Going to grad school burdens you with an amount of debt that severely limits your career choices. And it's a way to prolong childhood by continuing to have someone tell you what to learn and reward you for doing it.

Posturing as someone who makes only perfect choices means you'll probably end up lying to yourself: Only 12% of people make a good career choice for themselves right out of college.

The best way to figure out what you should be doing with your life is to give yourself time to explore yourself and the world. Which means you need time to think. Retail is flexible, and it doesn't take a lot of brain power. This leaves a lot of time and energy to do what you really need to be doing: Trying a lot of things on for size.

So the people who are honest with themselves about where they are in life also are brave enough to admit they are lost and should take a retail job to give themselves space to figure things out.

Retail gets you the American dream
The American Dream is no longer about money and things. It's about self-knowledge. The ultimate achievement is not a huge house and an expensive car. It's a solid family life and self-knowledge to steer clear of a quarterlife crisis or financial meltdown.

Kurt Anderson captures this shift in his essay in Time magazine: “[Too many of us have been] operating, consciously or not, with a dreamy gold-rush vision of getting rich the day after tomorrow and then cruising along as members of an impossibly large leisure class. (That was always the yuppie dream: an aristocratic life achieved meritocratically.) Now that our age of self-enchantment has ended, however, each of us gobsmacked and reality-checked by the new circumstances, is recalibrating expectations of the timing and scale of our particular version of the Good Life.”

The best way to give yourself that knowledge is to give yourself time in your 20s. It's difficult to explore who you are after you have kids. And it's difficult to focus on yourself once your career is in full swing. So you need to establish a foundation for personal exploration by practicing in your 20s. Practicing a lot. Retail enables this.

The new dream job is a combination of jobs — retail is usually a part of this, at least to start.

It's clear that the age of job security is gone. And the best way to get security is to have multiple revenue streams, so that if one fails, you have a backup. In her book, Marci Alboher labels this the “slash” life — where you have more than one profession and a slash between them.

In a nod to this trend, PayScale created a list of a new type of dream job — one that affords a slasher life, and also enables the type of control and flexibility in life that accommodates the values of the new American Dream. The dream jobs Payscale cites are freelance, hourly, and generally creative on some level. They validate the idea that the American Dream is not about money but instead about personal growth and control over one's life.

It would be great to be able to support yourself in one of these jobs, but it's tough going. Especially if you need health insurance. So retail is a stepping stone to the dream jobs of the new millennium. Retail gives you a safety net, a financial cushion, and the flexibility to build a dream career.

Retail gives camaraderie — something you really need in your 20s
One of the most jarring aspects of emerging adulthood is that in college we are surrounded by friends, and after college, our friends disperse. This means that at the time in life where we are separating from our parents, learning to support ourselves, and trying to figure out where we fit in the world, we're doing it alone. This is why depression is such a huge risk for people in their twenties, and why a support system is so important.

For everyone in the workforce, having two friends in the office can save a worker and a job. But this is especially true for people in their 20s because while other people probably go home to a significant other and maybe even kids, many people in their twenties go home to no one. In an office full of people in their 20s — which is most retail and not most offices — the shift from college to adult life is not so drastic and lonely.

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  1. Anna
    Anna says:

    I worked in retail 3 out of my 4 years in college. I had a great time, I learned a lot, and I made good friends. I also wouldn’t go back unless I didn’t have a choice.

    1. Retail pays next to nothing. Where I worked in particular was such a popular “Gosh, I want to work there” store (B&N), that there was no real reason for management to offering anything but a slightly-above minimum wage. Even management themselves make very little.
    2. Retail gets you no respect. It’s one thing to run into old friends at your store when you’re still in college. It’s another when they’re all getting paid twice as much as you by now. And it’s not the worst resume-builder, but there are better ones out there.
    3. Retail has terrible hours. Get ready to work evenings, weekends. Making plans ahead more than two weeks is a pain, because you never know which shift you’re working.
    4. Retail doesn’t guarantee hours. Unless you’re management, you can have 40 hours one week and 9 hours the next (at least, in my experience). Unless you’re still living with your parents and don’t intend on moving out for a while, this will leave you in poverty.

    • Jennifer
      Jennifer says:

      Couldn’t agree more with this comment! The only thing I would add is that in terms of skill level, most retail positions are so easy a monkey could do it! The trick or key to ‘surviving’ in retail involves the ability of maintaining a can-do attitude in spite of not-so-friendly exchanges with the public on a near constant basis. If you can tolerate large amounts of rudeness without losing your sanity, retail offers two good things: lots of openings and lots of security. As for the MAJOR four drawbacks that were mentioned above, couldn’t agree more!!!

    • Cash Warren
      Cash Warren says:

      Anna I agree with you 100%. Retail jobs are great for high school and college students. They give you experience with customer service, etc. On the other hand I sometimes wish I worked in retail a little because I have friends that have worked at say Starbucks and Bebe since they were in their early 20’s late teens and they were able to move up to assistant manager then to manager. They are now making very good money! I feel like if you can move up in retail like my friends did and get that management experience then it is worth it. It’s all about experience.

  2. Matt Bingham
    Matt Bingham says:

    I was the exact opposite in college. I had a full time job in IT when I was 18 (working second shift – no weekends). I grew up faster than I wanted too and found myself disengaging from the friends I had. It catapulted my career, don’t get me wrong, but when everyone was out having a good time here I was in a little computer room tearing apart reports. Retail does have an attractive bi-product in where you really get a chance to learn how to talk to people. You are constantly faced with talking to people whom you have never met, all day and every day. This alone is a great skill to have for working in the industry…Being comfortable with yourself and how you present yourself is hard for some.

  3. jenx67
    jenx67 says:

    Keep repeating it: The American Dream is no longer about money or things. Generation X saw firsthand how this trajectory helped break apart our families of origin. We wanted something more: TIME. It didn’t help that at work our Baby Boomer bosses (they looked an awful lot like our parents) hoarded all the worthwhile projects. We sat bored in our jobs – watching the clock tick away, longing to have slivers of the time we sold them and that they wasted. The painful irony of the boredom we loathed: they called us SLACKERS – an insult that created a false persona, and bolstered their positions in the workforce. I think it maligned Gen X potential, and truly I believe the economy suffered during the many years these talents were not harnessed for American good.

    Godspeed to Gen Y. They will need it. And, any Xer out there pressing down on this generation for their own benefit ought. to. be. shot.

    • Jamie Danielle
      Jamie Danielle says:

      I have been working in retail sence I have graduated from high school. For the most part I have always had fun where I was working. I have only had one bad experience with a generation x manager but as of late that problem has resolved it’s self over time.

      To say that all the managers take all the good projects worth while is not accurate. It is the managers duty to clean the bathrooms every night and they have to do all the counting out the cashregesters. While all the cashiers get to go home is all closing priestess are done. Yes there are some pointless projects that have to be done, but that is how all jobs are. Even my dad who is a software developer have the most stuppied projects he has to do, it’s just the nature of having a job.

      The managers where I work have always been respectful and so we respect them back and it shows because all of the associates take pride in what we do and we have ALOT of fun.

      I work at an arts and crafts store named Michaels I get paid above minimum waste and I just got a raise and I have only been there for 6 months.

    • Cloudyyo
      Cloudyyo says:

      Hi Jen, I see your point and for a few years (since finishing my masters degree) couldn’t help but feel we Millennials have been somewhat disenfranchised by the snug Boomers running the show. In a greater sense both Xers and Yers have been screwed by the Boomers, though I sure do envy you guys for at least being able to even get a low level starting run. In respect to poor, minority, low income earners, I’d say many of us Millennials aren’t too far off from ending up like them. Hell, I’m working with them in a bloody store now where the four points mentioned above are all true.

      A corworker and friend once encouraged me that bad retail bosses and workplaces help build character. Sadly once you’ve got to this point and toiled away at these things for years after being unable to find a career path you’ve set out to do, it is silly soil crushing.

  4. Alicia S
    Alicia S says:

    I look forward to reading your blog everyday and had to comment on this post! I recently graduated college and completely understand the notion of “Discovering Yourself” being more important than “Making Millions.” (Although both would be nice!)

    I don’t work in retail but in a really small PR agency. It’s literally me and the principal and president in the office everyday. I love being able to have such an integral part of every piece of business that comes through the door, but I do miss being around people my own age.

    In my opinion, twenty-somethings get stressed out too easily (me included). Worried about paying the bills, loans, etc. and putting too much pressure on themselves and their jobs, we forget that we’re still young and have so many options. The book “Eat.Pray.Love.” really put into perspective how life can go in so many directions. At the end of the day, it’s okay to just relax and be content with not knowing what you want to with your life. (Just maybe don’t make it a 10 year habit.) The most important thing is to keep an open mind!

  5. editormum
    editormum says:

    Interesting post. Much food for thought here.

    IMO and experience, the problem with retail is that the pay is so very low. I have a couple of close friends who are working two jobs and struggling to make ends meet because at minimum wage, even if you can get 40 hours a week, you’re only making about $14K a year. And getting 40 hours a week in retail is just not the norm, so to make it up, you have to take the second job. Most weeks, my friends get 30 hours at one job and 20 at the other — a total of about $17K/year. That’s poverty level subsistence. And with the cost of fuel, housing, and everything else rising, it’s getting harder and harder for them to keep body and soul together.

    I do like your last point, though: “One of the most jarring aspects of emerging adulthood is that in college we are surrounded by friends, and after college, our friends disperse. …at the time in life where we are separating from our parents, learning to support ourselves, and trying to figure out where we fit in the world, we're doing it alone.”

    I think that observation is indubitably true for most people. And it explains so much about why 20-somethings struggle so much.

    I appreciate the way my parents handled my “separation years.” They taught me about money from the time I was old enough to know that quarters were for bubble-gum machines, not for eating. So “learning to support myself” started around age 4, not when I graduated from HS. Once I was old enough to earn money by babysitting and doing yard work, I was required to meet some of my own expenses. So the transition from part-time, contract labour to full-time, salaried work was much easier for me than it was for my peers.

    In addition, knowing the high cost of housing, my parents allowed me and my brothers to “boomerang,” moving in and out of the family home until we were able to afford our own place. We could choose to pay rent to them or work out the rent in sweat equity. That was a tremendous benefit financially, of course, but also socially, as it left us with someone to come home to each evening — and with someone who could advise us as we tried to find (or make) our place in the larger world.

    • Molly Knight Raskin
      Molly Knight Raskin says:

      Hello. I’m a producer in New York, and am contacting you after coming across your comments on this blog.
      I’m working on a great project – a series of short films for the Web and, maybe, TV – and thought you might be an ideal person to interview.
      The project – YOUR MONEY STORY – will explore the financial pressures on young people in America, and how Gen-Y thinks and feels about money. Created by an award-winning production company (with an Academy Award and Emmys to its name) the project will feature a dozen stories on topics including creative saving & spending, real estate regrets etc. We’re looking for people who can share candidly – we want the good, the bad, even the humorous…We’re particularly interested in stories of Boomerang kids, which is why I thought to contact you.
      For more detailed information about the project and its producer, check us out online at:
      If you’re interested and think you have a story to tell I’d love to hear more, and invite you to e-mail me at:
      Hope to hear from you (if not, please pass the link on to any friends your think might be interested)
      Molly Raskin

  6. Writer Dad
    Writer Dad says:

    My wife, though she would loathe the position now, juggled three retail jobs while paying her way through college. She attributes her retail experience for a lot of the success she’s had later in life. Not just where she worked, but who she worked with and for. The good, the bad, and the ugly all coalesced to define her a little further as she was on her way from A to B.

  7. mamaworker
    mamaworker says:

    I know a lot of Gen Y people (single, childless) that have a day job and waitress/bartend at night. My advice would be to save all this money because married/children are expensive! Wondering where you got this 12 percent stat. Also, if it’s no longer about the money and things, if you work in retail, who is buying what you are selling?

  8. Stuart Foster
    Stuart Foster says:

    Ah, retail. I abandoned that even before it started. I worked industrial union jobs all through high school and college. I came to see how flawed the system was…but how it afforded people a better life then they might other wise deserve.

    Those days are over. They were over for Gen X and are certainly over for those of us in Gen Y. You can’t be a high school drop out and make 50k a year anymore. Sorry economics called: It wants its reality back.

    So suck it up, kick ass and don’t take any prisoners. The only way you are going to get out of this b.s. existence is to play the game better then anyone else. So what this essentially means is don’t accept the shitty intern job if you think you can do better…but make sure you can do better.

  9. Betsy
    Betsy says:

    I totally agree with this post. At 25, married, and out of college for a few years, I feel a little older than the target audience, but certainly still applies. I currently have a desk job in graphic design AND a restaurant job. With more college grads than entry level positions lately, I actually get paid more at the restaurant than at the desk job. Its completely tempting to work 3-4 days a week in retail and figure out my career, rather than slave away at a job that I have to be fully mentally committed to. Retail is easy, mindless, and instant gratification (in the form of tips) – you also meet a lot of people on your level and there is no competition for prestige or wages.

    • Anna
      Anna says:

      I don’t think it’s fair to compare food service to traditional retail. Traditional retail has no instant gratification. There are no tips. There’s only a meager wage.

      • Betsy
        Betsy says:

        Which is why I am in food service and not “retail”.

        “The prestige job of the new millennium is waiting tables and folding shirts. That's right. If you are in your 20s, you should try retail. “

        Penelope lumped them together into retail, so did I.

  10. Anna
    Anna says:

    I’m 26, single and jobless, and I’m choosing to traveling rather than being bored (because of job options – or lack thereof) and lonely (because I’m far from family and friends) in some town.

    • Kim
      Kim says:

      Anna, I have 2 years on you (an older 28 year old self) and find myself officially bored and lonely because I’ve been doing the same thing for four years in a city I don’t love. And what I know NOW (and more and more everyday)is that job security is one thing, but it no longer holds any weight compared to the feeling I get when I start to travel (and it’s been years now)and just immediately love myself again. How are you affording to what you do almost as your job and where have you been travelling? Just curious.

      Not really a comment to Penelope’s blog although, I agree (from a distance as I am stuck in THAT RUT doing the opposite, working as an admin assistant…making ends meet, but meeting no end goal/desire of my own) that we need to try new things/careers/paths/experiences at this time in life because what we miss in just doing with that aching to be somewhere else (or someone else) is passion and gratification. Is something to stand for, some reason to scream out loud, “I did that” or “I DO this” or to actually say “I love what I do”. At least for me, I want to have meaning in my life and make something out of this world because I can. Then I want to have a lot of kids and have love in my life…a nice hubby will do. Anyway, Anna…thought i’d write for a little inspiration if you ever get this. Thanks!

      • Mediterranean Queen
        Mediterranean Queen says:

        I so much agree with you! I’ve worked in retail for about TWELVE YEARS!! Not too long ago I worked for a popular super market in south florida and couldn’t STAND hearing the younger ones whine and moan and groan that they weren’t getting enough hours and this and that. I just wanted to smack them upside the head and say SUCK IT UP and actually do something!! I being much older and wiser of course did the smart thing: WORKED MY A** OFF, offered to stay late to make extra money, and you know what? I was the one getting the hours! Because I didn’t complain and whine all the time about the low money and managers, and it gave me more experience and something more to put on my resume which these idiots I used to work for just didn’t understand. They also ruined their chances of getting references for the next job. And they’re still their at this store unhappy! And I got myself a REAL JOB despite the economy making damn good money and now have better experience to put on my resume. It’s called DETERMINATION AND STRENGTH OF WILL. Some of us simply naturally have it and some don’t. And speaking of the economy I am so sick of hearing people complain about there not being any jobs…. yes there are… just make sure you’re doing a good job at your current one, that way you don’t burn any bridges and get good references. SO STOP BITCHING AND GET OFF YOUR LAZY BUTTS!!

  11. Brad Gutting
    Brad Gutting says:

    Hot damn there are a lot of whiners out there.

    1. You’re not entitled to anything. If you want something, expect to work for it and earn it. Complaints about your mean baby boomer bosses make you look like a sniveling pansy, of which there’s an excess in this world. Don’t be a sniveling pansy. Nobody wants to pay them.

    2. Life is hard. For everyone. Enjoy the struggle, or you’re going to be totally hosed.

    3. There are people in 3rd-world countries who have a hard time finding safe drinking water. If you have a roof and relatively easy access to life’s very basic needs, consider yourself fortunate.

    4. A degree proves that you can sit still and follow directions. Good for you.

    Working in retail is a fantastic idea. It’s hard, it teaches humility, and as someone mentioned earlier, it forces you to TALK to people. Anything can be a fabulous opportunity if you know how to be resourceful and make something of it.

    • Maus
      Maus says:

      Amen brother. You’ve written some words that are hard to read, but seem grounded in a wise perspective. The biggest frustration I have with many in the younger generations is that a sense of entitlement has replaced the meritocracy that P appears to disparage as a Yuppie folly. But those who are willing to work hard and learn from whatever circumstance they encounter will distinguish themselves from those who simply want to go along with their cohort.

      • one bitter, entitled gen-y girl
        one bitter, entitled gen-y girl says:

        Gee, I wonder who taught us to feel a sense of entitlement? Not our boomer parents, heavens no!

    • Erika
      Erika says:

      HAHA, well said Brad! I couldn’t agree with you more. I graduated college two years ago and was recently laid off from a marketing position that paid well but wasn’t very challenging. I took a retail job and was fortunate enough to find a full-time receptionist job, and even though I’m making significantly less and working a lot more hours, I have learned more in the last month than I ever could have imagined, and I am happier, more responsible and confident because of that. I think that no matter who you are, no matter what your age, if you are determined to work hard, stay flexible and always be on your game doors will open up all around you.

    • Tom
      Tom says:

      I came in here waiting for someone to make these comments, especially #1. I’m surprised I had to read this far to get to it. Well said.

    • Mediterranean Queen
      Mediterranean Queen says:

      I so much agree with you! I’ve worked in retail for about TWELVE YEARS!! Not too long ago I worked for a popular super market in south florida and couldn’t STAND hearing the younger ones whine and moan and groan that they weren’t getting enough hours and this and that. I just wanted to smack them upside the head and say SUCK IT UP and actually do something!! I being much older and wiser of course did the smart thing: WORKED MY A** OFF, offered to stay late to make extra money, and you know what? I was the one getting the hours! Because I didn’t complain and whine all the time about the low money and managers, and it gave me more experience and something more to put on my resume which these idiots I used to work for just didn’t understand. They also ruined their chances of getting references for the next job. And they’re still their at this store unhappy! And I got myself a REAL JOB despite the economy making damn good money and now have better experience to put on my resume. It’s called DETERMINATION AND STRENGTH OF WILL. Some of us simply naturally have it and some don’t. And speaking of the economy I am so sick of hearing people complain about there not being any jobs – . yes there are – just make sure you’re doing a good job at your current one, that way you don’t burn any bridges and get good references. SO STOP BITCHING YOU YOUNG ONES AND GET OFF YOUR LAZY BUTTS!!

    • Bryce
      Bryce says:

      I don’t know who you are, but I want to find you and give you the biggest hug ever. I worked at a bar as a door guy for 3 months, working my ass off everyday and my managers saw this and promoted me to a bartender, 3 months later, I was a manager, while the people hired at the same time as me are wondering why they are still working at the door and getting bad hours. People in this day and Age expected to be handed everything. The only thing in life that you are handed are Opportunities, opportunities to stand out from the crowd and prove that you deserve something

  12. Cath23
    Cath23 says:

    As a recruiter, I love hiring people who have worked in retail. Having done it myself through most of high school and university, I empathize with the comments above about the low wages and terrible hours. But like a lot of less-than-ideal experiences, working retail will force you to grow as a person and to gain some pretty great skills. Specifically, you will learn patience in spades, from having to deal with both difficult customers and difficult supervisors. You learn how to present yourself as a positive and professional resource, and how to open up a conversation with a complete stranger and to offer your assistance (something that can be really hard for some people, especially if you are shy like I was!). You develop a stronger sense of how people respond to you, and learn how you can tweak your approach to improve this response. These are great skills that are going to benefit you in any future job that requires you to work with other people.

    • Mediterranean Queen
      Mediterranean Queen says:

      YES YES, so agree. Granted, I left retail on purpose because of the hours and low pay, BUT the one great thing it did for me was open me up. Younger, I was very shy and quiet and working retail definitely made me come out of my shell and can now have a complete conversation with a total stranger and not have a care in the world if I said something stupid or whatever. I don’t care so much anymore what people think of me, and that’s a great feeling.

  13. Veronica Sawyer
    Veronica Sawyer says:

    This is awesome advice.

    I went into retail outside my field when I finished school and had a mini-career trajectory. Front-line customer service organizations are always desperate for competent people to promote into management. Within a year I was a senior manager opening and training at new sites. It was an exciting time in a fun environment with great people.

    Unfortunately the hours are terrible. Once I hit my 30s and was ready to settle down with my (now) husband, I couldn't bear the early mornings, late nights and constantly being on call. The worst part for me was changing shifts week to week. I ended up using the HR/Recruiting skills I'd developed as a manager to take an entry-level recruiting position at a significant pay cut so I could work 9-5. It was almost impossible to break out of retail. I was lucky, the guy who hired me as a recruiter had an operations background and understood the depth of my experience. Even though I had worked hard and done very well, I looked either over or under qualified to get out of retail and into something with better hours.

    Looking back I really do miss the excitement, always being busy and working with amazing people, but I learned that the most important thing to me is stability and work/life balance, which I have now. And after 5 years in an office I've almost hit my top retail salary.

  14. Mike
    Mike says:

    As always, counter-intuitive and stellar advice.

    I spent years working as a waiter/bartender and to this day I attribute my ability to put up with endless client-bullshit to the people skills (read: everlasting patience) I learned there. It’s a skill that translates into almost every career you may land in.

    Also, I *LOVE* the “slash” employment lifestyle advice. If you have tangible skills (design, copy editing, IT, etc.) that you can aggressively market on a freelance basis, or even pro bono, it’s a great way to start finding your professional self without committing to a career track.

    I might have one caveat to your advice about camaraderie. I agree, the 20s is a desperate time of isolation for a lot of people, and you MUST find new meaningful relationships. A true “careerist” might be better served by finding peers in meetup groups, networking events or interest groups. Restaurants and retail employees tend to be incestuous and insular – which is totally fun – but not necessarily a launching pad for a high-flying career. Your friends have a dramatic influence on your life – something I think you’ve already argued P. Make them good ones.

  15. New grad
    New grad says:

    I agree that retail experience can be valuable, but I disagree with the argument that it offers a better chance for self-exploration than a “traditional” office/corporate job right out of college. Just because you have time to think while folding doesn’t mean that working retail will become a fulfilling, productive experience that allows you to gain insight into yourself and your future career choices. That may or may not happen, but you can achieve the same objectives in any other job, and your resume will look better when you finally do have a sense of where you want to go next. Personally, the idea of paying thousands of dollars for college and then using my degree to work retail was unacceptable, unless that type of job was a short-term solution while I looked for something more challenging. It sounds like this entry was written to pacify the many talented graduates who are going to have a tough time finding a job that will actually utilize their gifts, given the current economic climate. That’s fine, but smart, educated people shouldn’t be kidding themselves that retail is somehow superior to a high-paying, challenging job that allows them to build a network, identify mentors, learn the details of an unfamiliar industry, etc. Most people don’t find their dream career out of college, true. But isn’t it better to make a genuine effort to find something fulfilling, than to just retreat into the comfort zone of the job you held during high school and college, deluding yourself that you are actually making more progress than you would with a “real” job?

    • LP
      LP says:

      “The best way to figure out what you should be doing with your life is to give yourself time to explore yourself and the world. Which means you need time to think.”

      Thinking is good, but trying stuff is also good. The whole point of your twenties is to locate a niche where you can get good at something for awhile, before moving on to the next thing. Self-knowledge is not obtained by self-reflection alone, but also by exploring interesting jobs, even though it’s clear that no one is going to find the perfect job immediately after graduation. It sounds like you’re suggesting that recent grads should deliberately avoid seeking an interesting job where they could learn some interesting skills, in favor of retail work (which most folks have already done at some point by the time they graduate).

      • LP
        LP says:

        Sorry, ‘new grad’ above, I didn’t mean to post this as a reply to your comment; I agree with your point.

  16. Nichole
    Nichole says:

    People underestimate how much you can learn from working for a great retail company. Four years in, and I’m an Assistant Manager making over 50K my first year out of college, more than most of my friends who graduated with me at this point. It’s like anything else in life–you get out what you put into it. If you look at a retail job as something that requires little brainpower and is easy, you’ll still learn about working with people, and possibly sales. But if you put your all into it, maybe you won’t be making $8.00 for that long, either.
    HOWEVER, don’t expect to love the hours. You’ll work evenings, weekends, holidays, and if you don’t want to stay at the $8.00/hr, it’ll only get worse.

    I do have a question, though: how the hell do I get out in a few more years?

  17. Clare
    Clare says:

    I worked in a shop all the way through school, then worked in a hotel during university holidays. Hotel work is a lot like working in a shop, with the same bad pay, the same long shifts, and the same having to smile at people who didn’t smile back. But although I realised I didn’t want to do it forever, I learned a lot from this work experience – about diversity, the importance of politeness, and responsibility. All good things to learn if you need to get along with people in your job.

  18. Maus
    Maus says:

    OK. As far as it goes, the advice to work in retail is fine. It can be the basis for learning how to listen to the people you serve and communicate effectively; and it can give you the time and experience to divine your life choices. But let’s not call it prestigious. As described by P, it is a stop gap career choice and not an ultimate calling. She clearly assumes that her intended audience will not be waitresses and cashiers in their forties.

    Why P insists on continuing to disparage lawyers and doctors, who, contrary to her opinion, still earn sufficient respect to deserve the “prestige” designation, mystifies me. In her more confessional moments, she has shared that she spent $50K on attorneys’ fees to ensure her autistic child’s educational plan was satisfactory. She obviously consulted an attorney to bring her divorce from Nino to a successful conclusion. You don’t seek these vital services from someone in whom you have no respect or in whom you repose no trust. Some twenty-somethings must know that they will be fulfilled as the kinds of doctors and lawyers who provide such service. For those who do, graduate school is not a placeholder experience but an essential step. Yes, graduate school is expensive. But being overly concerned about that is just another way of saying it really is about the money, which contradicts P’s assessment of the Gen-Y value system.

    • JunePearl
      JunePearl says:

      I agree, working in retail is not a position of prestige. But, I think she trying to say that it is looked at by employers (who probably worked in retail themselves) as a valuable experience that can carry over.

      However, I disagree with you in regards to doctors and lawyers. I think Penelope means that in the future, the prestige/income factor for these two careers will go down. I agree with her there. I think people of my generation (Gen Y) do not place such a high value on these two fields. In fact, I’ve had several conversations with my friends where we deride the fact that they make so much money. We just don’t see why apart from the debt they incur from graduate school. It seems to be inflated by the academic programs. They only allow a few people in (do we have too many doctors? Last I heard we don’t have enough, especially pediatricians, why be so stingy with enrollment?!?!).

      However, as I stated in a post below, in order to make money in the social/health services, you need a graduate degree. A starting salary for someone in my field without an MA is half what someone with an MA can make. And in some fields, you need an MA (such as speech therapy). And these are the fields that will have the highest job growth in the future. In fact my job is so recession proof, I have had two job offers since the downturn. I’m just saying.

  19. Lea
    Lea says:

    This is a very interesting post that resonates with me because I wrote something about this a few years ago in my (now defunct) personal blog. Essentially, I mentioned that we should encourage people to work in retail or other such jobs during school or part time or summer — anything — before hitting their “dream career path” for the reasons you’ve cited.

    In our teens, a few friends of mine were carnies for a summer for “fun” (boy were we wrong) and extra cash. Long hours for little pay, lots of yelling, sneers, and even threats of danger (some people really want their stuffed animal even when they didn’t win). We were looked down upon. These same friends are now doctors, lawyers, engineers and small business people. Too few realize how many budding success stories have often toiled in retail chains, restaurants, and other unglamorous jobs. I think part of their success is attributed to the humility they gained and hard work they had to do in other areas beside their intended career.

    We’re a sum of our experiences, after all.

  20. Joselle
    Joselle says:

    I worked retail (bookstore) before and during college. It was a great experience. I met crazy and funny people, had fun doing displays, developed my sales/people skills, got to know customers, made more than enough money for someone who was 20 and living at home and just needed to buy crap and food, got a discount on books, and I still keep in touch with a few people who I worked with back in the day.

    Retail management is also a great option for those beyond college and their 20-something years, too. As Nichole brought up, you can make a lot more money managing a store than some other nonretail jobs. Money may not be the point of the new American Dream but you still have to eat.

    It’s also good to know that should I get laid off or need a stop-gap job, I have retail experience and can go back to it. Even now, I still rearrange books when I go to Barnes and Noble on my lunch break. I can’t help it.

  21. Jamie
    Jamie says:

    Thank you so much for writing this. I graduated from college in December and searched and searched for what I percieved as a “real job”. I ended up taking a job selling for Cartier, and there have been many times when I’ve felt like a failure for working in retail rather than taking an office job. But the truth is, I’m doing exceptionally well in my job. I already earned a promotion and the sales skills I’m learning will help me tremendously throughout my career. The nature of this type of work allows me to pursue other interests–like writing. I always worry that people will not value my retail experience when I decide to look elsewhere, but your post has offered me encouragement at a time when I honestly feel a little hopeless.

    • Missa
      Missa says:

      I imagine there is a huge difference in terms of building skills that you can use throughout your career when comparing high end retail to low end retail. Back in high school and college when I worked at Old Navy and Victoria’s Secret, I didn’t learn anything new but instead had an outlet for my extraverted personality, was able to support myself, and learn discipline.

      In high end retail where you don’t stand at a cash register scanning items all day, your job is to build relationships with your customers and spend time with them to help them make a purchase. That’s when you learn actually skills that can be used in sales, marketing, and other client-facing roles.

  22. Amanda
    Amanda says:

    My dad, a retired Boomer in his mid-60s, has always told me and my sisters to get experience in the service industry and start waiting tables! Each of us has done a bit of retail and food service.

    I don’t know if I would immediately agree that waiting tables is the same this as retail. But it is all service. It offers experience you won’t ever get at a ‘desk job.’ However, my dad focused on personal development and learning ‘people skills’ as great reasons to obtain experience in this work, instead of American Dreams and camaraderie. You have an “ease into adulthood” approach, which would never come from a Boomer.

    Of course, my father was encouraging it for the traditional high school or college job. Then the assumption was that, of course, you get a job that utilizes your degree instead of wasting a college education on a job you never needed one for. Clearly not a GenY approach, but I can see that point. (Especially if he helped me pay for my education…)

    Regardless of generation, I believe everyone can see what one can stand to gain with service industry experience!

    • JunePearl
      JunePearl says:

      I worked at the Campus Information Desk for four years during undergrad. I realized that I like working with people. I also realized that I needed to finish my degrees, because ain’t no way I was gonna do that for the rest of my life, LOL!

  23. jrandom42
    jrandom42 says:

    As an Asperger and an introvert, the only things I learned from working retail during high school, was that I hated it and I really sucked at the customer service stuff, because I just couldn’t get why someone would be so upset that a certain item was out stock, but an higher end item was a lower price. Got out of it as soon as I could.

    • Paul
      Paul says:

      I hope you find another way to adjust to the bs that everyone has to go through to have any kind of a life. I have some of your difficulties myself, and to a lot of hard pragmatic types out there who do the hiring and paying, we are useless eaters of other people’s food until we start demonstrating that we can put up with everything everyone else is expected to put up with. And then some, if we hope to be at all successful or secure.

  24. JunePearl
    JunePearl says:

    I work in disability and career services a college in NYC, I am ALWAYS telling my students to get a job in retail if they can. If nothing else, it’s an eye-opener.

    A lot of people I went to college with (Big Ten, Public Ivy) had no work experience. They jumped from high school-> college -> work, and you can tell. They seem overly stressed out by little things, and clueless about office politics. Yet, these are same people whose parents are in the Good ‘Ole Boy/Gal network. Hence, why they never had to work growing up, and why they got jobs right away even with no work experience. They’ll be all right, most of them get promoted. Must be nice to have such vast privilege in life. I worked through college and grad school. It’s the only way I am able to keep up with these guys even though I don’t have the inside they do.

    Sidenote: I would say that the disdain for graduate work is reflective of a very, very narrow point of view of graduate school. I agree, MDs, JDs, and MBAs are not big ticket items everyone thinks they are. When I have a student tell me they want to be a doctor, I tell them that RNs and physicians assistants make good money, have better hours, and less debt/malpractice insurance to worry about.

    But you’re missing a lot of other things that people need a Master’s Degree for. Do you want to be a social worker? A rehabilitation counselor? A school psychologist? A speech therapist? An occupational therapist? A physical therapist? A mental health counselor? For each and every one of these degrees you need an MA…at the least. Some pay very well, and are worth the extra 2-3 years of school in terms of investment in academia (occupational therapists make GOOD money).

    Those that don’t pay well (social worker, rehabilitation counselor, etc.) are in such high demand that you can get grants/scholarships. All of my debt is from undergrad. I have ZERO debt for my graduate degree. There is such a big need for Rehabilitation Counselors, the USA paid me to get my MA. Because everyone wants to go into occupational therapy if they want to work with people with disabilities (I was not kidding about the money for OTs. It’s very good). What about someone to teach all of these people? Well, you need a PhD to a professor of speech therapy.

    I think you need to revisit the concept of grad school, and address these fields in particular. I’m sure you would have some interesting insight into these areas. I adore this blog (and have recommended it countless times to my friends), but this was always one area that I felt you were a little off the mark about.

    • Alex
      Alex says:

      Where can you get grants for counseling? I just got into a counseling MS program, and I need to find grants.

      • JunePearl
        JunePearl says:

        Sorry, to reply so late, I am only now looking at the comments!

        The grants are for needed areas. So general counseling, I don’t know if there are any funds. But Rehabilitation Counseling (the same thing, just working with the disability population. Some programs focus on vocational rehab. Long story, it’s due to the history of rehab counseling though) is a field that has a lot of need. The money varies depending on the program and the university.

        Here’s the link with the .pdf info:

        Best of luck!

  25. Randy Zeitman
    Randy Zeitman says:

    Sorry but this is stupid.

    “The best way to figure out what you should be doing with your life is to give yourself time to explore yourself and the world. Which means you need time to think.

    Exploring the world…yes… thinking… no. DOING!…not DWELLING!

    No one can know what they want to do until they do something similar…you can’t possibly know what banana tastes like until you have one but if you have an orange you got a pretty good idea about a tangerine and a clementine.

    “So the people who are honest with themselves about where they are in life also are brave enough to admit they are lost and should take a retail job to give themselves space to figure things out.”

    NO! No! No! They know what they are good at… numbers or people… tech or social… pick the category that you think you’re best at and get involved.

    “The American Dream is no longer about money and things. It's about self-knowledge. The ultimate achievement is not a huge house and an expensive car. It's a solid family life and self-knowledge to steer clear of a quarterlife crisis or financial meltdown.”

    Yea, you wish. I just spoke to a group a college seniors about web design jobs…#1 question…WHAT PAYS THE MOST!.. #2 question… WHAT PAYS THE SECOND MOST! (same as it was 10 years ago).

    • JunePearl
      JunePearl says:

      I don’t know if I agree 100% with everything you’ve stated, but I defintely agree with that last point. I think if you grew up middle class (or better), and you have mom/dad to fall back on, then retail isn’t so daunting. If you grew up working class and your parents are struggling, if you have the opportunity to go to college, you’re not looking to “find yourself”. You’re trying to pay the bills.

      • Pete W
        Pete W says:


        I agree. This is alarmingly short-sighted advice. Just think:

        – How will your parents/grandparents/siblings feel when you tell them you’re not even going to bother applying for a real job (after they just spent $40k sending you to school) because “you’re just going to change careers anyway” and you need to be “lost” for 8-10 years to figure things out? I’ll give you a hint: they won’t be proud of you. More likely they’ll wonder if it was something they did.

        – Lots of people earn their retail/foodservice stripes while still in high school or college anyway, where they learn not just how to be humble, work with customers, etc, but also that these jobs are awful and that they need to do well in school so they can move on to something better.

        – REAL prestige jobs (finance, law, consulting, medicine, etc) are admittedly going through some rough times right now, but (except for medicine) they all continue to have way more applicants than they can absorb, and it sounds like they’re actively trying to sort out their problems and reform. Give it a few years and I bet they’ll be pulling all the top Ivy League kids once again.

        – Relatedly: there’s nothing wrong with career ambition. Probably the most common reason people want to make money is so they can give their kids better opportunities than they themselves had, for all that it’s fashionable right now to sneer at “greed”. Drop by a decent business or engineering school and you’ll notice that half the kids are Chinese or Indian (cultures that value hard work and responsibility to one’s family), whereas the Caucasian kids are off taking Television Studies and Intro To Sports.

        – Making tons of money might not make people much happier, but being engaged with one’s work, having ambitious long-term goals, and feeling like you’re making a difference all certainly do. Retail jobs are repetitive, degrading, and dull. The work is not very useful or productive and pays accordingly. You will learn that there’s not much point in doing an excellent job when a merely adequate job will do, something that is emphatically NOT true in more open-ended jobs.

        – If you do decide to get a real job later on, you may no longer have access to all the career counselors, mock interviews, on-campus interviews, job boards, and other services your college offered and you ignored.

  26. Leslie
    Leslie says:

    This was an interesting article for me. I worked retail full-time after finishing a graduate degree in music (yeah, no jobs in that for the moment, but at least they paid me to go to school). I didn’t find it to be quite so conducive to personal growth, but I could’ve probably used a little perspective. I definitely was grateful to have any job at all. However, I reached the end of my rope with the crazy variable hours, absolutely terrible pay, and physical exhaustion from being on my feet forty hours a week. I shared a dumpy apartment in a cheap part of the country with my boyfriend and cut out all voluntary expenditures, and still couldn’t make ends meet (I’m talking going on a payment plan to pay utilities, etc.). And I just wanted to go to bed as soon as I walked in the door at the end of the day. I definitely didn’t practice my instrument in any kind of disciplined way while working that job; it just took the desire completely out of me.

    That being said, it was a paycheck, and those are pretty hard to come by these days. And the commenter who mentioned how retail taught her how to handle extreme amounts of annoyance and irrational behavior from others was completely right on…

  27. Jake
    Jake says:

    I agree to the extent that doing something (anything) productive and responsible after college is far better than hiding in grad school or blogging/tweeting/branding all day from Mom’s basement.

    The thing is, I doubt your recent guest bloggers would agree. Too much like paying dues.

    • Amanda
      Amanda says:

      Interesting perspective! I would also like to see if the 20-somethings with which P is professionally associated with would agree. Any takers?

      • JunePearl
        JunePearl says:

        I’m 24, the only one of my friends who work in retail are the ones who are trying to make it in the arts: writing, singing, acting, etc. Everyone else has an office job.

  28. Rhys
    Rhys says:

    Great post! Of course I may only be saying that because it’s a vindication of how I lived my twenties (which are going to be over in about a week). I haven’t necessarily worked retail, but I have remained uncommitted to any one career, and have kept my focus on doing what I want to do as much as possible. It’s refreshing to see someone advocate retail as a valuable stalling ground for people who haven’t made up their minds, since the standard view is that it’s a desperate choice for those who are hopeless. Taking more time for yourself gives you a chance to consider all the little things you might otherwise ignore. “The Power of Small” ( ) is a book I’m looking forward to reading for that reason.

  29. prklypr
    prklypr says:

    Working in retail is also the perfect flex job for anyone returning to the workforce after taking time off for kids, elderly parents, etc. As others have said, the pay is terrible but the benefits are usually pretty good – health insurance, 401K, etc. It’s a great way to ease back into working again, esp since schedules are generally flexible.

  30. Erica
    Erica says:

    This post makes very little sense to me.

    1. “Only 12% of people make a good career choice for themselves right out of college.”

    How is this measured? Where does number even come from? People who stay in the same career? What if they are miserable?

    2. Working retail while you “figure it all out and try on other things” only makes sense if the things you are trying to figure out are done online or in some sort of flex-time. What if the things you want to see if you are qualified for don’t include jewelry making, blogging or internet community building?

    3. Retail as financial stability cracks me up. I am sure it is different in Wisconsin, but in order to survive in NYC or environs, I would have to work so many retail jobs to make ends meet that I would be lucky to both sleep and eat.

    4. “This means that at the time in life where we are separating from our parents, learning to support ourselves, and trying to figure out where we fit in the world, we're doing it alone.”

    Isn’t this what college is supposed to be for? Why are people waiting until after college to figure out what’s going on.

    5. There is definitely a chip on your shoulder about grad school, and in a lot of instances I would agree with you. But, in many cases, grad school is essential. Some people actually need grad school to be things like lawyers, teachers, psychologists. And, I have never seen a retail job offer to pay for grad school, but I have seen plenty of mid-sized or larger companies offer tuition reimbursement. And if an advanced degree could potentially increase your earning potential, why would you instead choose retail?

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      The research about only 12% of people choosing right the first time comes from sociology professor Frank Furstenberg at University of Pennsylvania. He studies emerging adulthood. And he concludes that the 12% who choose right on the first try are actually the least innovative people in the workforce.

      A lot of the assumpitons I make in this post come from my conversation with him. For example, he thinks that the best thing people can do in their 20s is focus on understanding where they fit. And since the only way to know how we fit is to try lots of stuff, the more flexible life in one’s 20s can be, the better.


      • Erica
        Erica says:

        Hi Penelope,

        Thanks for the clarification – that does help me understand this a bit better.

        I understand and agree with your point regarding flexibility, but part of what I become increasingly concerned with the more blogs I read by my fellow twenty-somethings is this supposed authority on office politics and careers and as far as I can tell – its not based on experience, but on perception. I fear that by working retail no one is actually going to gain experience, but are instead choosing the life of an armchair analyst. To me, this is a fate worse than grad school.

        – Erica

      • Jackie M.
        Jackie M. says:

        Interesting . . . I have a Poly Sci degree, but fell into interactive marketing right after graduation. I’m 26 now, 5 years after graduating, and I guess I chose correctly. I find a lot of these recent posts about twenty-something's slightly irritating b/c not everyone has to move home, quit their job after two weeks or even work retail to “find” themselves.

        I know the research referenced generalizes people, but I would be ashamed to have my parents to pay all this money for my degree and then go back to working at the GAP, where I worked from 16 through 20. I took a chance with a field I had no experience in, taught myself how to build a website, and now I’m making a six figure salary and working for a successful start-up.

        The difference I feel is that I went out and tried something, and it ended up working out. If I had gone back to retail to “think” instead of getting out in the real world and “doing” something, I would have postponed my success.

        Focusing on “thinking” and “where you fit” doesn’t pay the bills, but if you live with Mom and Dad, I guess that isn’t a priority.

  31. GenerationXpert
    GenerationXpert says:

    The best job I ever had was being a lifeguard from ages 17-21. I made about $150/week in 1988, which helped me buy my 1982 Escort (I realize that it’s very Gen X of me to have had a car as a teenager – but there was no public transit and the mall was 5 miles away). What I loved about that job was that we just had fun and got tan.

    I look back at my first three years after undergrad and still marvel that I got through it with a nervous breakdown. My hourly wage as a journalist was less than what I made as a lifeguard – and the people I worked with tended to be real dicks. I wish I just would have renewed my lifesaving certification and hung out at the pool for a couple more years.

    One of the things that held me back early on was not my lack of “experience,” but my lack of “life experience” – I was probably really annoying to the 30-somethings who were hiring back there. Three years of lifeguarding would have accomplished the same thing as three years in journalism hell at small weekly papers, because all I really needed was to mature a little.

    • JunePearl
      JunePearl says:

      Yeah, this is an urban thing. You really can’t afford to live on your own in a big city unless you’re making the big bucks. I used to live in college town before moving here. People my age had their own place, or lived with mom/dad.

  32. lizriz
    lizriz says:

    I think 20-somethings come home to roommates. As do more and more of us every year, actually. I’m 37, and I come home to a roommate. Although perhaps this is more of an urban thing?

  33. Todd
    Todd says:

    Great Post Pene. I must disagree though. Liberal arts majors tend to drift towards retail and lower-end jobs during downturns. Those who studied engineering, computer science, or even nursing, are humming right along even these rough times. While Silicon Valley VC money is down and unemployment is locally high (as I’m sure you know) consider that unemployment rate for engineers and nurses stands at only 3% overall. A freshly minted sociology major would love to have those statistics and income prospects. But retail work humbles and can boost EQ. Heck, a brief stint in retail tuned up my soft skills and it helped me swoop up a lucrative engineering job offer

  34. ralph b
    ralph b says:

    You should recommend engineering school for everybody. I’ve worked at 4 fortune 100 companies and all hire engineers for all functional areas: Sales, Marketing, Operations, Patent Law, Accounting and sometimes even Engineering. An engineering degree says you’re certified smart and the company will figure out where you fit in.

  35. Kevin
    Kevin says:

    From the movie “Reality Bites”,

    Lelaina Pierce: I’m not going to work at the Gap for Chrissake!

    Her mother has other career advice for the aspiring journalist,

    Charlane McGregor: Why don’t you get a job at the Burgerrama? They’ll hire you! My Lord, I saw on the TV – they had this little retarded boy working the register.

    Lelaina: Because I’m not retarded, Mom. I was the valedictorian of my University!

    Found these quotes appropriate for the topic and if you’ve never seen this movie I highly recommend it.

  36. Katie
    Katie says:

    I think that a lot of college students fall into retail because they were never allowed to pick their own course of action to begin with. I graduated from college in 2006. I never knew what I wanted to do when I went in. I wanted to figure it out before I did but it wasn’t an option. I took courses I liked but never took the time to find a path because I was always still trying to please parents with good grades.

    Retail jobs are there to help you realize that it is not where you want to be. No one dreams of a retail job, it is there to pay the bills until you are allowed the time to figure it out.

    I had two professional jobs straight out of college. My parents dream. I didn’t like either of them and failed miserably at both. I learned a lot but came to the conclusion retail is safe. I need safe while trying to figure out my passion. My parents still nag that I am not like my gen x brother and sister but my gen y comrades understand the absurdities of what our parents are trying to make us become. Sell outs. We are the age of not selling out.

    • Natalie
      Natalie says:

      Thank you for putting it this way. We are not lazy, we just very much want to make the right decisions, and take them seriously. I, too, fell into the same trap. I knew what was easy for me and took classes that would enable me to breeze through. There was SO much pressure to get a degree ASAP. Taking time off was NEVER an option. We were lower middle class, and being from the area I am from, people get married younger, so I was married after the first year of college, and we fully supported ourselves. My husband, now of 8 years, joined the Army after I graduated, and I have a four year-old daughter. We now live in the Boston area and I work retail to avoid the 1500/month daycare I was paying by working in offices here. I have had a couple of office jobs I enjoyed, in fields I never would have considered before. So it is definitely about finding yourself a bit. Don’t get down on yourself. No one can fault you for doing what feels right for you.

  37. Atteoj
    Atteoj says:

    I think some of the thoughts posted here are intriguing, and it’s generally good to re-evaluate perceptions of how life “should” go…but…the description of grad school here seems to be of a particular kind of grad school. I got my Ph.D. without incurring any debt (can’t say the same about my undergrad degree) and even though I’m not in that field anymore I benefit from the education and experience every day. I’d have happily gone into some debt for it. And let’s be honest, if you are working retail to support yourself, debt is either on your heels or running up your back. So whether you incur debt or not is not really a relevant measuring stick.

  38. Jason Monastra
    Jason Monastra says:

    Great perspective. But the fact remains that what you say people believe and as said is the new trend. It is also the un-doing of the nation. The movement from people away from math and science has driven the competitive advantage right from this country. Becoming self aware and all of the other aspects that people discuss (which I find to be part of the puzzle) are coming at the expense of an eroding talent base that the rest of the world has capitalized on. Soon, without a shift from this mode of thinking, we will continue to see a shift to the US becoming a place in the world where the standard of living is diminishing. Right along with that will be the retail centers and other venues that allow for people to become aware of themselves.

  39. JIm C.
    JIm C. says:

    “Retail is flexible, and it doesn't take a lot of brain power.”

    What an insult to people who work in stores!

    I suppose it doesn’t take a lot of brain power if you plan to start as a drone at the bottom of the pay scale and still be a drone at starting pay five years later — assuming you haven’t been laid off for being unproductive.

    It doesn’t take any brain power to do the bare minimum job and veg out. To succeed in retail, as in any other field takes brains, initiative, and ambition.

    • Stiva
      Stiva says:

      Get real.

      Succeeding as a surgeon or a physicist takes a lot of brain power. Succeeding as a retail clerk or waiter takes dramatically less (not to say it doesn’t require persistence, people skills, etc). That’s why the former requires advanced training while the latter hires high school sophomores.

  40. nadia
    nadia says:

    when i was in college, much to my surprise, my father told me that the purpose of school was to ‘learn how to use your leisure time’. When pressed he explained that one could learn work skills on the job or in trade school – college was for learning how to think so that when one graduated, regardless of work and life, one had the ability to continue thinking and growing.

    i graduated with a polysci degree from a good school. i’d done a bunch of internships and work in that area could have been found. instead i went to another part of the country for a degree in a totally different field – and i found that my so called skills were completely useless outside of washington dc.

    instead i bartended, waited tables and worked retail. up until i graduated that ‘name’ school i had bought into the idea that we were all there b/c we were the best & brightest and everyone else was stupid. in retrospect this was surprising b/c i’d worked since age 14 and i worked thru college and i certainly didn’t have a charmed life subsidized by parental monies or connections.

    nonetheless working in food service & retail taught me amazing things. Working as a waitron is an excellent real world short course in Critical Path management. Now, some 18 years later, i still use those skills to accomplish multiple tasks concurrently. Food service taught me to make presentations. It’s hard to be shy if you have to go up to 20 tables per night and interact with them. Both food service and retail taught me how freeking lucky i was, too. THE BEST THING ABOUT WORKING RETAIL OR food service is that you often work with a lot of people who are a lot smarter than you – but that haven’t had the same opportunities. It’s hard to buy into the ‘i’m excellent b/c i graduated from ‘x’ when you realize that the illegal immigrant busgirl or the single mom without a high school diploma can each think circles around you.

    I did one other thing when i was in early 20s employment hell. i had a job in my chosen profession that didn’t pay well. i had a second job in retail. I also volunteered at a soup kitchen one night a week. it didn’t leave me much time for a life BUT it sure reminded me of how fortunate i was – especially again, when i saw smart personable people using soup kitchen services b/c they hadn’t had my advantages – or they’d just his a run of bad luck. there was a certain element of ‘there but for the grace of god goes i’ in my life during those days.

    now that they are past and i’m doing well in my profession, i constantly draw upon those experiences. at the very least, i try not to act like a jerk when dealing with people who are working at ‘menial’ jobs – because i’ve had said jobs and they are not easy and they are not refuges for the stupid – just places where people of all different types go to do honest work.

  41. Philip
    Philip says:

    You want camaraderie? A sense of belonging? Support from your peers? How about we add free room and board, so that your admittedly small paycheck can go toward other things? Then add tuition reimbursement, free medical/dental, travel, and a challenging environment? Sound good so far?

    Join a branch of the military service. I spent almost nine years in the US Navy submarine service right out of high school, and it was the best investment in myself I can imagine making. Yes, there’s always the threat of inconveniently being deployed, and let’s not down-play the very real possibility of making the ultimate sacrifice for your country and/or your comrades. But you’ll learn lessons there that you will NEVER learn in retail or anywhere else. And if you decide to make a career of it, there are some pretty nice incentives that kick in at a pretty young age. For instance, my peers that retired from the Navy could do so at age 38, assuming they joined at 18. They then applied the knowledge and discipline they’d gained to NEW careers, at which most of them excelled. I don’t know if those are still the rules, but a short conversation with a recruiter could give you the latest info.

    Not for everyone, but for those that can handle it, it can be a very rewarding career, or an extraordinary launching point. Definitely worth considering.

  42. ioana
    ioana says:

    Why does this remind me of that Saturday Night skit – “Lowered Expectations Dating Services”.

    I did a lot of retail jobs while in high school and university. Realizing how much work they are for so little money, it kept me on the straight and narrow and I didn’t look back since I finished my degree.

  43. darlene
    darlene says:

    I had the best time of my life in grad school. I found my intellectual peers for the first time ever. I still remember thinking, WHERE HAVE YOU PEOPLE BEEN ALL MY LIFE! The conversations, the dreams, the ambitions, the volume of in-depth learning – it was incredible and something I search for in every job I take. I think Grad School can be an incredible option – don’t limit yourself because of the cost. IT IS WORTH IT. -Darlene

  44. Ulyana
    Ulyana says:

    This just seems a very complicated way of re-stating the common fact that when you cannot find your “dream” job, you just gotta make ends meet and you will most likely end up doing retail/restaurant type of work where the turn over is high and the qualifications threshhold is low.

    I don’t think retail/restaurant work is the new prestige job. It’s just there are so few “dream” jobs out there right now that a lot of people are forced to spend time waiting on tables or folding shirts so they could cover bills. Or, another example, a lot of laid-off female executives look for jobs at strip clubs.

    So, that’s just it, retail gives you the bare minimum to make ends meet while you figure things out. It’s not more prestigious than it was before. It might not be looked down upon as much because more and more 20-year-olds find themselves in that boat.

  45. Susan
    Susan says:

    I agree in theory. But I hated working retail and was surrounded by older women who were either retired or mom’s (which was great, but I was 22 at the time and felt I had little in common), or hated their jobs. Financially I was in a position that I had to live with my parents, which was nice in a way, but made me feel isolated and completely unmotivated. I was dying to get out of dodge.

    I found moving to NY and working in a creative environment at a video editing facility was rewarding, challenging, fun, full of people my age, a party atmosphere, and had potential for endless growth. I would direct creative type Gen Y’ers to find an entry level job at a like minded environment in design, art, PR, publishing, whatever and use that as a stepping stone to both adulthood and career. For me, retail was just too mind numbing and I was eager to launch.

  46. Barbara
    Barbara says:


    This is one of your best posts ever.

    It is so real, and the interesting thing to me is that these issues you address were relevant 30 years ago when I graduated from college.

    I began working at 16 in the food service industry, and continued working throughout college in food service, the hotel industry, and in a library and a bookstore.

    As many others have posted here, I found these jobs to be invaluable in learning how to talk and interact with people, to work as a team, and to offer quality service to customers. And back then, realatively speaking, the money was pretty good. I went off to college with nearly 5k in the bank! But it’s not feasible to live on those salaries post-college now and it wasn’t then.

    When I graduated from college in 1979, I was totally unprepared for how lost I would feel without being surrounded by my friends as I had been for the past 4 years.

    I also was totally confused about what career path to follow. I felt pressure from family and society to jump into a “real job” with security and a good salary.

    I wish I had taken my friend’s suggestion, which was to move to Florida with her, get waitress jobs, and spend a lot of time on the beach checking out the boys!

    Instead, I made a series of unhappy job choices my first few years out of the starting gate, and wound up moving back home w/ mom, which in the 70s was not as acceptable as it is now.

    My point w/ all this is that, really, not a lot has changed…just intensified and is moving at a faster pace.

    I think there are deeper issues that need to be addressed, mainly helping teens and college students discover choices and options that will make them happy, fulfilled, and prosperous. You can have all three! I sure didn’t know that in my 20s.

    Last weekend I watched the new Wayne Dyer movie, Ambition to Meaning, twice. While I love the movie I disagree with Dyer’s theory (based on Jung) that we don’t or can’t awaken to a deeper, more meaningful way of living until we are in the “afternoon” of our life. Let’s wake up in the morning!

    Anyway, I agree with your premise that it’s all about personal development, and a “job” is just a band-aid. I think we need to help Gen Yers dig deeper and create lives and careers that will bring them the best life has to offer.

  47. Irina I
    Irina I says:

    The only problem I see with working in retail is that you are not surrounded by other high-achievers. Or at least, they are much more diluted.

    I currently work in a consulting company where pretty much everyone is smart. As a recent college graduate, the amount of daily learning that goes on in my job is extraordinary. I also have a great mentor who guides me in my career at this company. This leaves me some time to think about what I want in life, but mostly provides training in order to succeed later.

    Would it be easy to find such training on time management, management of other people, increasing your own productivity and effectiveness, etc. on a retail job?

  48. RJ
    RJ says:

    Interesting post, interesting comments. Be wary of re-casting the American Dream too early though. I’d much rather hedge my career choices with the option to make money should it come back into vogue (which it will) than pursue a path of self discovery under some naive illusion that once found it will remain constant through my life! Finding who you are is a life long pursuit. Don’t rush it. All good things come to those who wait! In your 20’s, perfect choices are not necessary but defaulting to retail for no reason other than to give you time to try out other things suggests that you’re going to be defined by the job that you do. You are not. You’ll be defined by what you do in the job! You don’t need to know exactly what you want to do in your 20’s but you do need to start building a track record of achievement in whatever role you assume. Retail has limited value in this regard and as such, if I were a new graduate, I’d set far higher goals for myself than folding a shirt.

  49. Mike
    Mike says:

    I find this a very strange post and it’s even stranger that so many comments agree with it. I spent from age 15-20 in restaurants and retail. These jobs are low paying tedium. They develop nothing except the capacity to tolerate mindless work.

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