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on Leading the Next Generation


The Pitfalls of ‘Rent-a-Careers’ for Young People

Do you remember Sean Aiken? I wrote about him in my book Generation iY. He graduated from college and became a picture of this emerging generation’s longing for work they’re passionate about, and impatience for work they’re not sure about. He literally took a different job every week for an entire year. Yep, he did. In fact, he set up a website called to document his journey. He did stints at UPS, Gap, Starbucks, Enterprise and Apple, among others.

While Sean’s story is a bit of an exaggeration, it’s analogous of what employers are now expecting from young grads. Business leaders were asked about today’s pool of young professionals entering he marketplace, and a new survey finds they don't have much faith that recent college hires will stick around for very long. A full 77 percent of businesses expect a recent graduate hire to stay less than a year.

The survey was conducted by Express Employment Professionals, and the results demonstrate a pattern they’ve seen for years. According to CEO Bob Funk:

First, many in the Millennial generation are taking jobs that they are over-qualified for and thus are eager to move on when something better appears. Second, we've seen a decrease in employees' commitment to employers as a higher value is placed on personal advancement.

While I fully understand the “overqualified for the job” motivation, I feel the need to address the “Rent-A-Career” mindset among young professionals.


Far too many new professionals enter their first jobs like they do an apartment. They aren’t sure if this is a long-term thing, and they haven’t really made up their minds about how long they want to stay in it. In fact, it may be they are still unsure about the direction of their career. Unfortunately, it’s obvious to their employer—they are only half-hearted about their position. Their uncertainty causes them to “rent” their job instead of “owning” it. They don’t take as good of care of it as they would if they really committed themselves and served as if it were their company.

It shows up in little but real ways, such as:

  • You’re unprepared for team projects.
  • You don’t show up on time for meetings.
  • You seem nonchalant about tasks you work on.
  • You don’t really care about colleagues outside the job.
  • You are careless about your workspace and appearance.
  • You don’t really push yourself to work hard and be creative.

The truth is—everyone is working for himself. You may think you aren’t since you have a boss and are told what to do for the company. But in reality, you and your teammates are all working for yourselves. The effort and energy you exert will either come back to haunt you or bless you in the end. Your work and attitude this week will eventually show up. Every day you are building your resume. My suggestion? Own it, don’t rent it.

I’ll be the first to admit, your career may look different than your parent’s or grandparent’s generation. In the past, people climbed a corporate ladder. They often stayed with a company for decades and step-by-step, climbed that ladder toward higher positions and better salaries. Many believe new professionals today have moved from “ladders” to “lily pads.” Instead of climbing, it may look more like a frog hopping from one spot to another. You may even have multiple careers

Ownership Brings Vision

When you own your career, you can better see and seize opportunities as they surface. Case in point: Levi Strauss. He arrived in San Francisco as a dreamer during the gold rush of the 1850s. He was a 17-year old immigrant tailor, who heard about the gold and wanted to cash in on the opportunity. He read of the overnight-fortunes made by those who discovered gold in California. But, alas he never found gold. He did find, however, a golden opportunity. Strauss quickly realized that many travelers arrived in great need of canvas for tents and covered wagons. He tailored large pieces of canvas and sold it to these miners, which made him enough money to stay. An astute observer of people’s needs, he saw that these same miners were going through trousers fast, ripping them as they squatted, climbed, crawled and sat panning for gold. So he stitched the canvas into overalls and began selling them all over the place. They were stiff but sturdy and held up well.

By the early 1860s, he traded in the canvas for denim. The cloth was originally from Genoa, and thus called Genes, and later spelled Jeans. Levi had himself a thriving business. Ironically, he made none of his money from the gold rush, at least directly. Levi Strauss never discovered gold...he did discover in blue jeans. And that made him richer than most gold diggers. The pants were stitched and held together with copper rivets because they were used as work clothes. Today, Levis are seldom worn as work clothes and mostly worn as a fashion statement. Designer jeans, the pants once designed for work, are now the costume of play and a multi-million dollar industry.

The Primary Motivator for Peak Performance

Something good happens when people begin to “own” their work. Energy comes. They get creative, they get resourceful, and they take incredible pride in their work. Jon Katzenbach published research illustrating how team members who took pride in their work actually outperformed all others at General Motors. He wrote: “...compared to the GM average during a typical period, the pride builders scored 23 percent higher on safety, 10 percent higher on people development, and nine percent higher on a composite of all five measures that compromise GM’s plant performance scorecard.”

Katzenbach concluded: “Pride is an intrinsic, deeply seated human emotion. It’s the one thing that drives performance in the workplace in a number of ways, from creating and delivering a great product or service to winning a colleague’s respect.”

Author Theodore Kinni agrees. He writes about General Motors’ decision to close down an auto plant in 1991 due to lack of profit. The manager told his workers there was no option to save the plant but they could make that decision look stupid. With nothing to gain, they began building cars with such excellence, dealers began to request them. In three years, GM chose not to close down the plant after all. The employees made themselves too valuable to lose. The report was called, “Pride Goeth Before Profit.”

The fact is, taking pride and owning your work makes you more valuable. In other words, when you shift from the Rent-a-Career mindset to an Own-It mindset, not only does your work become better, but the work of others improves as well, increasing the strength of the organization as a whole.

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  1. dennis lowe on February 5, 2015 at 8:35 am

    I’d say “get real”. While C.E.O.’s are collecting unheard of bonuses and closing the doors behind them young workers are being asked to “own” their careers? Thousands of workers in this country, young and old, will forever be trying to own their little aisle in Walmart and earn their benefits.

    • Tim Elmore on February 5, 2015 at 4:49 pm

      I hear you loud and clear. It’s true there are both good and very poor employers out there. I actually have worked for six employers in my career…and experienced both myself. However, I want to make sure you don’t miss the point I was making. Regardless of the “boss” I have found it is beneficial for a young professional to “own” their career and each job along the way, if for no other reason than the development of their own successful habits and attitudes. When I saw that I was working for “myself” even when employed by someone else, it helped me in every way. I could rise above the fray and was not dependent upon someone else doing the right thing. In fact, it prepared me to lead an organization today.

      • Ryan Courtoy on February 8, 2015 at 3:05 am

        Tim, i know this is a unique situation but what do you do in my situation? I’ve had close to 20 jobs since graduating in 2010. All the jobs I’ve had I have performed at very well earning multiple promotions and employee of the month awards. The majority of these jobs I did not like even though I was able to perform well at. In my situation the jobs I really did enjoy did not pay enough or provide enough hours to make ends meat (min wage, small stipend or part time). Even now I just received the best paying job of my life (barely enough to pay bills for myself along with my stay at home wife and 6 month old) this job I know I will do very well at, and will probably be promoted within my first year and have many more opporrunities to move up but its not something I really want to do or am passionate about. Honestly I’m tired of going to work doing something I really don’t like and just “choosing” to have a good attitude and barely get by. (Ps we budget and we have managed to “get by” on 2 to 2500 month as a family).

        • Ryan Courtoy on February 8, 2015 at 3:15 am

          PS I know some of the things I REALLY want to do as a career/job. I am currently working towards or doing those things but I know in reality it could be multiple years until I am able or qualified to get paid doing it. My plan right now is to work toward my goals and dreams while doing whatever necessary to provide for family until I’m prepared/ready/qualified to do what I’m really passionate about and get paid doing it.

          • Tim Elmore on February 20, 2015 at 8:49 am

            Ryan – From the limited knowledge I have about your situation, I think you are approaching this correctly.

            What I would recommend you doing, though, is finding some mentors who can help you navigate this career path. Find someone who is in the career you want to be in, sit down with them and ask them how they got to where they are and what they would do in your situation.

            I hope this helps.

  2. Kristoph on February 5, 2015 at 9:20 am

    Right out of college I went to work for a Fortune 50 company and was subsequently laid off due to “corporate restructuring”. As a result, I am disloyal to companies. I view them as customers for my services and if a customer comes along that offers a better opportunity, I’m gone. When push comes to shove, the idea that employers will do all they can to protect employees is generally lost on baby boomer management. I am sure others have had circumstances where employers were fiercely loyal, but many gen iYers have seen their parents laid off like me and the sense of loyalty does not develop.

    • Tim Elmore on February 5, 2015 at 4:50 pm

      You are very right. I have seen both as well, and I have spoken to hundreds from Generation iY who’ve been laid off or had disloyal employers. Point well taken. Please see my comment to Dennis above. I still believe it’s all the more reason to value the idea of “working for ourselves” and to “own” the job and career we are current serving. It makes a “boss” want to keep us around and EVEN WHEN THEY DON’T…we’ve improved our habits and attitudes for the next “lily pad” we jump into. Hope that makes sense.

  3. Judy Miller on February 5, 2015 at 9:58 am

    The other side is that employers don’t invest or commit to employes.As a member of the older generation,I remember the days when people worked for 40 years for the same company anticipating health.benefits and retirement checks when they reached age 65.Not anymore.Companies can “down-size you after 38 years to avoid paying retirement,or just because they can hire a new grad for half your salary. Health care is also cheaper on a new grad:hence,companies cut you loose to flounder looking for a new job after you have invested a lifetime of service.So,bottom line is new grads HAVE learned a lesson through their parents’ experiences.So,if companies moan that young people have no team spirit and motivation,bottom line is,”what goes around-comes around.”Now,there is no loyalty on either side.Always keep in mind>>>”Whatever you do,work at it with all your heart,as working for the Lord,NOT for men.”My five year grandson gave me this on a color page to hang in my office.When thing do not make sense,I read it.

    God watches out for me.

    • Tim Elmore on February 5, 2015 at 4:54 pm

      Love your comment. You are so right…too many employers do not invest in their teams, especially young professionals. We are trying to change that. I believe Boomers have as much to learn about healthy culture on the job as Generation iY. And I agree with you…we are not working for “men” anyway, right?

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The Pitfalls of 'Rent-a-Careers' for Young People