Why Are American Workers So Quick to Job Hop?

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Loyalty is often viewed as a virtue, especially in the business world. Companies work hard to ensure their customers and clients stay loyal to their products. Careers that lasted 20 to 30 years at one company were once the norm. But employees in the last decade or so have become less loyal about sticking around at one company.

In some cases, it can be viewed as a characteristic of the millennial generation, because the employees who are job hopping the most tend to skew younger. But other analysts suggest the trend is a result of company restructuring that began 30 years ago, when corporations started signaling their bottom line was more important than keeping longtime employees on the payroll. Regardless, the stigma of changing jobs five times before hitting your 30s is starting to become less damaging as it becomes more of a workplace norm.

One of the factors at play in the company loyalty issue are the generally accepted views on large swaths of millennial workers. Though it’s likely an unfair characterization for some of the people born between the 1980s and early 2000s, millennials are generally expected to seek out job opportunities that will provide them with job satisfaction. Doug Horn, a writer for the recruiting blog RecruitiFi, writes that younger people are more loyal to their own careers and also less willing to put up with cantankerous managers.

“Millennials are a generation widely considered to be ‘entitled’ or ‘self-absorbed,’ and if a certain employer is not meeting their professional or financial goals, they have no problem moving on to another company who will meet them,” Horn writes.

Younger workers are also less willing to stay in a job with less-than-ideal circumstances. In a study conducted at Bentley University of 1,000 millennials, only 30% of the men and women surveyed were willing to stay in an unpleasant work environment to achieve career success. Horn said, “A poor manager may disrupt workplace morale or camaraderie and be directly correlated with your employee’s decision to leave.”

And whether it’s a workplace dispute or not, workers do switch jobs more frequently than compared to decades before. According to the latest data collected by the U.S. Department of Labor, the median number of years that workers have been with their current employer is 4.6 years. There’s a divide between ages, too: Employees between the ages of 55 and 64 had a median job tenure of 10.4 years, while workers between the ages of 25 and 34 had only been at their current job about three years.

A survey conducted by CareerBuilder in 2014 found that about 25% of workers held five jobs or more by the time they were 35 years old. Of workers 55 and older, 20% had held 10 jobs or more.

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Some of those changes among younger workers can be a way of circumventing the corporate ladder. In a paper called “Hiring, Promotion, and Progress: Millennials’ Expectations in the Workplace” from St. Olaf College, the authors wrote that the desire for rapid success often causes younger workers to job hop instead of waiting for a promotion at their current job.

Other workplace attitudes can also affect people’s eagerness to change jobs, sometimes regardless of age. Loyalty is a reciprocal exchange, according to Adam Cobb, a professor at the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania. It became more common within the past 30 years for healthy companies to increase shareholder values at the expense of laying off employees.

Within the past three decades or so, companies have also slashed benefits and put more of the cost burden of health care on employees. “The trend was toward having the risks be borne by workers instead of firms,” Cobb said in the Wharton article. “If I’m an employee, that’s a signal to me that I’m not going to let firms control my career.”

The job-hopping trend was once cause for concern among employers, who indicated several years ago that job-hopper résumés often went to the bottom of the pile. But according to a CareerBuilder survey, even employers expect their prospective hires to have moved around frequently. More than half of employers surveyed (about 55%) said they have hired a job hopper, and 32% said they have come to accept workers who switch jobs frequently.

But even though many employers now won’t be put off by numerous jobs listed on a résumé, there’s still evidence that job hopping is best left to the young, at least in an employer’s eyes. About 45% of employers expect new hires coming from college to move on to another job in two years or less. But 41% also said that job hopping becomes less acceptable by the time employees fall into the 30 to 35 age range. After age 40, only 28% of employers thought frequent job changes are acceptable.

So a word to the wise for millennials: Make the more selfish job changes early in your career and have legitimate reasons for making each switch so you can explain your lengthy résumé. And for those who might have missed the “do it while you’re young” window, frequent job changes are still possible, but you might need to explain yourself a little more.

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