May 19, 2024

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Gen Zers switching jobs at accelerating pace—at their peril

5 min read
Gen Zers switching jobs at accelerating pace—at their peril

Career progression is not the steady staircase to the executive floor it once was. Rigid expectations of a linear, upward trajectory can blind you to diagonal opportunities. Think of your career not as a ladder to climb, but as a mountain range to cross, with different challenges and environments to master, expanding your tool kit along the way so you can keep moving forward.

Focus does not necessarily translate to linear progression. There’s value in variety. One study found that the best predictor of a new CEO’s success was how many different jobs had held before taking the reins.

Successful, wealth-generating employment careers (as opposed to entrepreneurship) typically include strategic changes that produce jumps in responsibilities and compensation. It’s a sad truth of human nature that outsiders will value you more than your current employer—we crave novelty, bosses are no different. It’s a common mistake for managers view the employee through the lens of when the person joined the firm vs. a more seasoned executive who is a commodity.

Keep searching

Even if you don’t change employers, market checks can pay dividends. My first year at Stern I was paid $12,000. My value to the school climbed fast (I taught the school’s most popular class and I made frequent outside appearances), but my compensation did not. Universities underpay clinical and adjunct faculty to subsidize (too often) unproductive tenured faculty. So every few years I brought them an offer from another university and was transparent: “This is what my market value is, I’d like to stay, and I ask that you match it.” They did. Eventually, my other ventures rendered my NYU compensation less valuable, and these days I return my compensation to Stern so I can bite the hand that (doesn’t) feed me: I write and speak about the shortcomings of higher education, and it would feel funny to cash their checks as I rage against the machine. But for many years, those raises were a big deal for me. In sum, if you want to grow your compensation at a greater clip than inflation, you will likely either need to leave or demonstrate a credible willingness to do so (see above: offers from other universities).

Be on LinkedIn, maintain your profile, benchmark peers; talk to friends, former classmates, and colleagues about their jobs. There’s an incorrect notion that talking about money or promotions is uncouth. Only your employer benefits from your ignorance. If you are in a field where headhunters prowl, take their calls now and then let them buy you lunch and quiz them about the state of the market. Who is hiring? What are they looking for? What skill sets and characteristics are hot right now? Who’s struggling to catch on? And most critically, what’s your value, and where would it be maximized?

A caveat: explore other opportunities with a healthy skepticism, and actively remind yourself what you like about your current employer. Every job has its frustrations, every boss their irritations, and what seems like a dazzling and limitless opportunity will, after six months, likely be just your job.

The nuclear option is to take all this information and actually change jobs. As of March 2023, Americans who had changed jobs in the past twelve months increased their compensation 7.7% in that time, while those who had not changed jobs saw an increase of just 5.7%. The delta changes over time, but job switchers are almost always ahead of those they leave behind. New environments also expand your experience base, making you more flexible and adaptable in a changing economy.

The image of the job switcher is changing, but overall, job tenures have declined only modestly. In 1983, the median tenure for workers 25 and older was 5.9 years. By 2022, that had declined, but just 17% (over nearly four decades) to 4.9 years. Where job switching has accelerated fastest is with younger workers. Twenty-one percent of millennials say they’ve changed jobs within the past year, more than three times the number of non-millennials who’ve done the same. Members of Gen Z are switching jobs at a rate 134% higher than they did in 2019, according to LinkedIn data. That compares with 24% more for millennials and 4% less for boomers. And Gen Z’ers plan to keep moving: 25% say they hope or plan to leave their employers within the next six months compared with 23% of millennials and 18% of Gen X’ers.

Switch jobs with care

Changing jobs is a double-edged sword, however, and one to be wielded with care. It often means abandoning investments you’ve made in learning about an organization and rebuilding a reputation and a network at the new firm. There’s significant risk, because no amount of interviewing can ensure you will be a fit at the new organization. And then there’s the cumulative effect on your résumé, what message your employment history sends to future employers. If you’ve had three jobs in seven years, the person interviewing you likely assumes you are the problem. I’m not suggesting you stay at a terrible job solely for CV hygiene. However, if you were at your last job for less than two years and you don’t love your current job, I’d think long and hard about what would be required to stay three years plus before switching.

Young people who are comfortable with regular changes of employer shouldn’t assume everyone feels the same. For a sense of how we used to view frequent job switchers (and how some still do), in 1974 a Berkeley psychologist coined the term “hobo syndrome” to describe “the periodic itch to move from a job in one place to some other job in some other place,” which he thought was an impulse “not unlike that which causes birds to migrate.” Hobo syndrome is not a label you want potential employers attaching to your résumé.

So when should you change jobs? When the next move gets you further across the terrain, balanced against your reputation as a serial job switcher. Meaning, when there’s strategic value in the change, that it’s materially better, not just different. Are you adding a valuable brand name to your résumé? Is it an opportunity to expand your network in a productive way? Most important, will the new position/employer allow you to expand your skill set? This can be technical job-performance skills, like learning new software or analysis tools, but it can also mean softer skills—the opportunity to manage other people, exposure to senior management, better mentors, more direct customer contact. If you can’t articulate clear and concrete advantages to the new job, question whether it’s just change for change’s sake, and whether you’ll be looking around again in another year.

"The Algebra of Wealth," by Scott Galloway.
“The Algebra of Wealth,” by Scott Galloway.

Portfolio

This excerpt is adapted from The Algebra of Wealth: A Simple Formula for Financial Security, by Scott Galloway with permission from Portfolio, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC copyright © 2024 by Scott Galloway

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