I remember a few years ago reading a study suggesting that people, who started their careers during a recession, were at a distinct disadvantage as far as their career went. What’s more, this hurdle turned out to be worth quite a few thousand bucks over the course of one’s career. The theory went that starting in difficult times often caused a kind of negative halo effect to hover over your early years, which subsequently held you back from promotions and so on. If you’re not familiar with the halo effect, it’s when we take performance in one area and use that ability to assign someone skills in a completely unrelated area that they may not have.
Subsequent theories on the matter have failed to reach a real conclusion however. Some believe that the development opportunities available, when you work in a boom time, are a tremendous help, whereas others argue that working during a challenging period helps you to build adaptability.
A recent study from researchers at the Rotman School of Management in Toronto set out to explore further just how influential it is to one’s career to begin your journey in a recession. Their exploration of employees at a couple of information technology companies has given them fresh insight into how circumstances appear to influence our careers.
A change in circumstances is what matters
They found that a recession isn’t so bad in itself, but rather the boom or bust nature of the economic cycle is. For instance, if you start in a deep depression, but most of your career is spent in a roaring economy, that disparity is harmful to your career. If you start out in challenging times, however, and those challenging times persist then there is much less damage.
"We can’t really say that one is necessarily better than the other," the researchers say.
So those employees, that start out in the good times, may struggle to adapt if the economy, or indeed the fortunes of their employer, take a turn for the worse. The employee who started out in tough times, however, may lack the ability to push on when times are healthier.
If there is a degree of similarity between their start point and the rest of their career, however, then it’s likely to give their career a boost. It’s an interesting finding but doesn’t say a whole lot for our ability to change our habits once they’ve become established.
From an organisational perspective, the study suggests that employers should try to diversify their workforce as much as possible so that they have a mixture of experiences represented. For instance, those, who began during good times, might be placed onto a slower project alongside their more normal ones. The flip side is that those, who joined during a slump, might be given experience on faster moving projects (once they become available of course).
I’d love to hear your own experiences, especially as many of you will have no doubt started work during the recent recession. How has it influenced your mindset, and indeed your career?