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If the job-search firm Monster.com is right in its survey research, you are probably looking for a new job. According to its data at the end of last year, that’s what an eye-popping 96 percent of Americans workers reported doing. And yet, you probably won’t actually make that change: One Pew Research Center study found that only about 30 percent of workers changed jobs at least once in 2022, which was roughly on par with the level of turnover in 2021.
What accounts for the 66-point difference between aspiration and action? Psych Central, a mental-health website, notes that a common reason people stay in jobs they want to leave is fear of the unknown: Will the new job be worse than the old one? This is a powerful emotion, liable to dominate other ones because evolutionarily it was so important to our survival. Our ancestors passed on their genes because they did not say, “I don’t know what kind of mushrooms those are, but I bet they’re delicious!”
You may know that you’d like to do something else for work, but your options look like mushrooms of unknown origin. Thus “the devil you know” wins out, and you stay put. This can lead to a lot of frustration and dissatisfaction. But research about changing jobs illuminates trends that can guide your decision making, help lower the uncertainty, and manage your expectations.
Research across many industries and countries has established that very distinct patterns occur in people’s happiness when they change employment. The good news is that job satisfaction usually does indeed rise. Writing in a recent edition of the Journal of Organizational Behavior, scholars found that job changers rated their satisfaction with their old job at roughly 4.5 on a scale of 1 to 7; that changed to about 6 when they started their new job, and this rating held at six weeks in.
That’s how long the honeymoon lasted. At this point, satisfaction started to fall for about the next five months. At the six-month mark on average, an inflection occurred, depending on the “career orientation” of the job changer. Those with a self-centered orientation—defined as those who see themselves as independently responsible for managing their careers, and mostly think about their own benefit—stayed at this lower level (about 5.5) of satisfaction. This contrasted with those who had an organization-centered orientation—defined as prioritizing loyalty and security, and envisioning their career as part of a greater whole—as they started to see their satisfaction rise again after that six-month point.
The researchers did not track what happened after that, but it is reasonable to assume that the self-oriented folks continued to feel less satisfaction, and the organization-oriented to feel more. After all, we know that the first group reported an intention to leave the new job at significantly higher rates than the second. Self-oriented careers have more churn and less job satisfaction than organization-oriented careers.
A second pattern in the research from around the world is that those who are happier people in general are more adaptable in their careers. In fact, happiness—more than perceived social support or a positive attitude about the future—is the most significant predictor of being able to cope with, and make the best of, professional changes such as greater responsibilities and skill demands. In other words, people who are happier overall are more satisfied when they change jobs than unhappier people. Researchers also note that thriving in a career can be closely related to maintaining a healthy work-life balance, which is of course a key to personal fulfillment.
A third pattern in the data concerns the “push” versus “jump” factors in employment. Scholars writing in 2017 in The International Journal of Aging and Human Development found that people were happier with their career changes if they had made a shift of their own volition, as opposed to being laid off and having to find a new job. This isn’t too surprising, but it underlines that people may have a choice about being proactive in the labor market when their job situation is uncertain.
If you are considering a change of job or career but feel paralyzed by fear of the unknown, the research offers a few practical lessons to help assuage your anxiety yet keep you from unrealistic wishes and rash decisions.
1. Manage your expectations
We’ve already seen that a job change usually increases satisfaction, but that much of this can wear off fairly quickly—within months, especially if you are not an especially organization-centered person. So coach yourself to be realistic: The change most likely won’t make you worse off, but don’t romanticize it. If your expectations are too high, you will be disappointed; then you might find yourself on the job market over and over again, stuck in a cycle of unmet hopes.
2. Look for happiness outside of work first
Remember that the biggest predictor of work happiness is nonwork happiness. I have witnessed this throughout my own career, in myself and in others: When things are good in the rest of your life, they seem more stable and less bothersome at the job. Conversely, when we look for our overall well-being in what we are doing to earn a living, it places too much emphasis and pressure on the job, making it into a kind of a religion. (And actually practicing a real religion probably brings greater happiness.)
3. Jump before you are pushed
Humans crave control over their environment. One of the most common correlates of depression is feeling that your life is out of your control—that external forces are determining what happens to you. Getting fired or laid off from work commonly provokes frustration, guilt, embarrassment, and anger—and is likely to coincide with less satisfaction when you find a new job. Sometimes, losing your job comes as a complete surprise, but advance warning can take such forms as a change of management, a hiring freeze, or a switch in product line. If you stay alert, you have a better chance of leaving on your own terms.
People generally talk about moving jobs as a dramatic occurrence, a major life upheaval akin to getting married or divorced. And it can be that significant for people who have spent many years with a specific employer, or who prize stability and security. But for most people, such adjustments happen many times. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that for people born in the later years of the baby boom, a man with a higher education will, on average over the course of a lifetime, hold nearly 12 different jobs; a similarly qualified woman will hold more than 13 jobs. That frequency of career change is hardly comparable to how often people marry and divorce—except possibly for a few Hollywood celebrities.
In other words, keep it all in proportion: Most people change jobs multiple times in their career. So the best practical advice, if you are sitting year after year in a frustrating gap between aspiration and action, wanting to change but fearing uncertainty, is simply this: It’s really not that big a deal to try something else, so you might as well do it. Just bear in mind that the happier you are outside of work, the happier you are likely to feel in work.