A new study of workers entering the labour market between 1979 and 2002 confirms what I have been feeling about work and jobs. The study looked at thousands of workers and their patterns of mobility and found that those who did not find their place within a few years tend to suffer the consequences. From the press release announcing the publication of the study by sociologist Dr. Sylvia Fuller:

“On average, every job change reduces a worker’s wage by a little over one per cent. So if someone changes jobs 10 times, they’d be earning about 11 per cent less.”

The statistics paint a sobering picture of wage penalties for women who leave a job for family reasons, almost on par with getting fired. For example, female employees who quit for reasons such as taking care of children or following a husband to another city would see a 2.6 per cent drop in wages compared to 2.7 per cent less if they were fired.

“It seems that leaving a job for a family-related reason results in significant wage disadvantages, even beyond what we would expect given the time out of the labour force that such quits often entail.”

The press release goes on to say that whether the reason for leaving a job was dismissal, layoff, or for career or family reasons, employers tend to start stigmatizing such potential employees as, frankly, damaged goods. It’s a cruel slap in the face to those of us who came of age in the era of massive corporate layoffs and cutthroat competition for good jobs. We’ve also been weaned on the advice that having 5-10 jobs over the course of one’s career is not only okay, but expected. Throw in the lies about “work-life balance” (mostly aimed at women) companies are so fond of touting and see if you don’t start getting cynical, too.

The sobering news that I may be approaching my sell-by date for respectable employment is hard to swallow. But in a weird way, this study’s findings are more comforting than the perky career advice doled out by e-mail newsletters from Monster et al. to dress right for the interview, shake hands with authority, handle pesky co-workers and face change with a positive attitude, always! Oh yeah, and set them goals. It confirms that although competence and experience are what employers say they want, they are actually judging workers on image (physical appearance, career track record, gap-free resume) and likeability and personality. “Fit” is ephermeral, yet paramount. I don’t fit in, never have, never will. I always hoped to find a place to learn and grow in the bosom of a company, but now it looks like going my own way may be the only way.