Career advice isn't one size fits all – what works for some fails miserably for others – but you can make generalizations for how to safeguard your professional self at various stages. Consider these pointers for how to be and do your best work at any age:
20s and 30s
Around this age, you might flounder when determining what you want to do or how to start. Limited experience means limited leverage to find work. "The younger person often has no kids and fewer personal responsibilities, so they can take risks and work for that startup company," says Hallie Crawford, a certified career coach and founder of the Atlanta-based coaching firm Create Your Career Path. "They can work at a place without health care, or with health care, but no dental insurance. They can hop from job to job. But younger people don't just have less to tie them to a job – they also have more energy."
In other words, take advantage of that energy, work longer hours, take a few professional risks and pay a lot of your professional dues. It's OK to use this time to job hop a little, as long as you're methodical and forward-thinking. "There are certainly benefits you might choose to forgo, but there are some you absolutely shouldn't," Crawford says. "Ask about a company's 401(k) plan. Be aggressive in your saving. If you're working with a startup, ask about their stock options."
And another priority: Get thee to a career counselor and seek out a professional mentor. Your naivete and lack of professionalism is expected, but only at the very beginning of your career. Listen to the advice of trusted experts, and emulate more established people who have accomplishments you admire.
[See: 20 Work-Life Balance Hacks.]
40s and 50s
This is when you enter a professional conundrum: You're probably at the peak of your career when expertise commingles with enthusiasm for your work, so you make for a very attractive hire. But you're probably at the height of personal commitments, with babies or school-age children, and perhaps even aging parents who are dependent on your job security and steady paycheck. It's easy to get comfortable. "Often when people get into their 40s and 50s, their pattern of changing jobs frequently has slowed down," says Phyllis Mufson, career coach and founder of Catalyst for Personal & Career Transformation. "They have responsibilities – marriages, families and mortgages, and they tend to stick with what they consider to be a good job for a while."
Where you can stand to branch out is with professional development. People now continue working well into their 60s and 70s, so you need to stay relevant in the job market by nurturing your existing skills while also learning new ones. "It's not uncommon for me to have a client that is using software from 15 years ago, and they're expecting to find a new job and receive training on the job for how to use the newer software. It's really on the job seeker to train themselves," Mufson says.
According to Crawford, the type of training you choose to pursue varies by industry, but also by geographic location. "If you're living in the middle of a small town in the middle of nowhere, then yes, you might want to investigate just online courses. But if you're closer to a large city, you have more options for quality on-site classes, for quick certifications and also to earn another degree," she says. You may also make inroads to the best development opportunities by staying active in relevant professional associations and attending conferences to keep up with your industry's trends.
There's something else crucial for this age group, and according to Mufson, it's a skill that should be a little easier than it was when you were younger: networking. You never know when the unexpected might thrust you back into job searching. "It's common for people in this age group to slack off with networking," she says. "It's the best way to find a job – the great majority of jobs are gotten through referrals, and if you've been working longer that means you should have a larger network and even more people who are willing to go to bat for you to help you out."