How Long Should You Expect to Pay Your Dues?



Q. My question is about paying your dues – how much should you give to get to where you might go?  At what point to you say, I’ve got what it takes and deserve to get a job without paying dues? – 20-something


A. Faster than when we grew up but not as fast as you think.

A little tonque in cheek. But often the interpersonal skills you need to navigate a career take longer than just learning what to do.

It is however a tricky question in today’s workplace where many complain that members of the Millennial generation are entitled and more prone to seek fulfillment than fetching coffee.  While it’s a common dispute between older and younger generations, it’s accentuated by several factors unique to this generation. As one woman who answers below points out, it is a different world today. Due to technology you can seek out new opportunities on your own and the cost of entry for “starting up” is lower than in the past, creating an environment that celebrates jumping into the action right away. At the same time, the economic climate and perceived lack of reward for loyalty gives little motivation for those entering the workforce to feel paying their dues is pays off.

Yet many 20-somethings are still unemployed or underemployed. They are feeling the need to take any job and frustrated by having to be on the periphery rather than in the center of it. Your whole life until your first “real job” is all about you and your achievements. You get reinforcement and rewards from teachers, support and praise from parents and likes from your friends on Facebook. The question is always, “What do YOU want to do? What do YOU want to be?

Then comes life and you are not the center of attention. This is a difficult transition and not that dissimilar a situation from the experience of 20-somethings of any generation. So all things equal, how long should you expect to pay your dues?

I did a post a while ago about “when is too long to stay in a job” that touches on the question of paying your dues. Some key points:

1) While paying your dues make sure you are learning something. Learn from other areas of your company. Learn from the people you interact with outside the company. Learn from your higher ups. Ask them how they go to the position they are in.

2) Take a look around you. Did others who started out doing the types of tasks you are doing get ahead. How long did it take them?

3) Get reviewed. Have an open discussion about your career path, your expectations and how they match with the expectations and traditional career path in the company. Don’t be afraid to say you want an accelerated path but be prepared to work really hard to do so!

4) If you are not challenged, talk to your boss about taking on additional responsibilities. Assure them that it will not take away from your ability to do your job (and make sure that is the case).

5) When promises of a promotion from a more administrative position keep getting sidelined or delayed ask yourself why. Your boss may be holding you back because you are good at what you do and they are loathe to find a replacement. Then it is time to start looking!

And now…several women added to this conversation based on their experiences and what they have learned:

This experienced manager says it’s about rising above the rest. Paying the dues implies no passion or motivation to go beyond what is expected. Try to find something you are passionate about in your job so you can go above and beyond.

“It is always great to be ambitious and to strive for more; however, it is not always up to you to decide when it is time for a promotion or new responsibility.  Having managed over 15 people at my last job, I can tell you that no one’s accomplishments went unnoticed; however, only several stood out.  Simply achieving is not always viewed by a manager as a reason for promotion or additional responsibility.  Often what I was looking for was a “leader” someone who not only achieved but who led by example and went above and beyond what was expected.  In this tough economy, meeting standards of what is expected in your job description is not enough to rise above.  Many factors determine those selected for advancement, achievement, personality, involvement and passion come to mind.

If you still feel like you are being overlooked, I would ask your supervisor for a review to see how you measure up in his/her eyes.  This will give you further perspective on what you are doing well and what you need to work on.  This will also put your supervisor in a position to focus on you and your contributions and perhaps reevaluate your job responsibilities.” – 40-something, fashion industry

This woman learned it’s less about what you know than it is about understanding the organizational nuances and developing the interpersonal skills required to build your reputation. That does take some time!

“I was paying my dues in my career until I was 9 years out of college. My impression from the 20-somethings I work with and know today is that this would be way too long to have to spend to prove yourself, build a network and build a reputation. I do indeed think that my 9 years could and should equate to more like 5 years for today’s 20-somethings since they have so many more venues, thanks to technology, to both learn and communicate.

But it’s important to understand that building a reputation and experience takes time. When I graduated from college, I thought I knew everything because I had been studying world politics. What I didn’t know anything about was organizational structure and office politics. It took me some time to learn how to get my job done every day while also managing these elements of every career. – 40-something, digital marketing

This woman has the perspective that we should change the conversation as women from paying dues to getting paid.



“I cringe at the word “deserve” and want to remind my younger sisters not to get distracted by this. It’s the pay piece that the younger generation needs to face…and fix, btw. Our mothers lead us into the workplace and we’ve established a strong footing, but now it’s come down to compensation. Michelle Singletary’s personal finance column in the Washington Post recently covered a new study that confirms what I’m talking about.

“A new study by research firm Catalyst found that while doing all the right things to get ahead in the workplace is effective for men, being proactive did not provide as great an advantage for women”.

The firm looked at commonly used career strategies and whether the gender gap persists because women and men adopt different methods to advance their careers. The findings revealed that men benefited more from adopting proactive strategies. However when women used the same tactics, they still advanced less than their male counterparts and had slower pay growth.

Regardless of the chosen career strategy, men outpace women in job advancement and pay from the get-go. There’s a $4,600 pay gap in their first post-MBA jobs, and that widens to $31,258 by mid-career, according to the study.”

You can deserve all the jobs you can think up, but until women start understanding that they’re not getting paid as well as their male colleagues, they’ll keep getting sidetracked by concepts like merit and degrees. – 40-something, marketing, national non-profit

Good advice all around. It is difficult balance to strike the balance between speaking up enough and leading by example.  Would love to her more opinions on that!



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