As far as hashtag memes go, #Firstsevenjobs and its derivatives (#first7jobs, #1st7jobs, etc.) is, to me, a fascinating one. I’m hard pressed to find another way to convey as much formative biographical information as is contained in a simple listing of one’s first seven jobs. Of course, I study career development for a living, so I’m probably a bit biased. I love asking people to describe the job they hated most, and even more, the job they loved the most. I love seeing a list of positions a person has had and then identifying themes that are embedded in that list. And I love imagining people in their first jobs, wondering what they learned from their experiences. Can you imagine Stephen Colbert working in construction, and then as a bus boy, cafeteria server, library data entry, futon frame maker, futon salesman, or waiter? (It makes me very curious about his futon recommendations). Does it make you at all amused to learn that Sheryl Sandberg was fired from her first two gigs as a babysitter? Good help is indeed hard to find.
Some observers have astutely identified some lessons from what has emerged from the hashtag—that your first job doesn’t dictate what you will do with the rest of your life, for example, or that career paths are seldom linear. Others have oh-so-badly missed the point, attempting (poorly) to argue that #firstsevenjobs advances a self-made man ideology that disguises one’s privilege. To be sure, the role and function of privilege as both facilitator and limiter of career mobility is a critically important issue. But should we avoid reminiscing about our earliest jobs on twitter to avoid perpetuating the rags-to-riches American myth? That seems like a case of privileging guilt to me.
If you want to have a sense of a person’s career trajectory, it’s usually more telling to start with the present and go in reverse chronological order. The first seven jobs, plain and simple? That’s often more of a window into a person’s adolescence. Most of us found our first jobs because they were the most accessible, because our friends were working there, or because it just seemed like an easy way to make a few bucks. First jobs usually have very little connection to one’s eventual career path. That’s not to say they aren’t important, or formative. Research indicates that early jobs help teens develop a sense of curiosity about the world of work. Parents and youth both appraise their early jobs in a positive way, although again, few suggest they had much influence on their eventual career choice. Jobs with a reasonable number of hours help adolescents develop good work habits and the beginnings of useful networking and job searching skills; only when hours become long does employment hinder career development (by negatively impacting educational attainment). All told, when we’re coming of age, it’s the experience of working that matters to our development much more so than what we do and where we do it. Still, it’s fun to share about our first jobs—so do it. Here’s my #first7jobs: corn detasseler, sporting goods sales, dish washer, house painter, personal care attendant, landscaper, teaching assistant.