Are Millennials Really Job Hoppers?

The narrative of the job-hopping millennial is only partially true.
Job Hoppers

The narrative of the job-hopping millennial is mostly true — but there’s more to the story.

According to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, job tenure for millennials, or the generation born roughly between 1980 and 2000, is less than the current tenure of baby boomers. However, older generations also moved between employers a lot when they were young.

In January 2006, workers ages 20 to 24 at the time had a median job tenure of 1.3 years, according BLS figures. Fast forward to January 2016, and that tenure remained. Job tenure for workers aged 25 to 34 years was 2.9 years in 2006; it was 2.8 years by 2016.

On a related note, job churn, or how much people quit their jobs for a new one, is also slowing. According to a story from Wired, job churn since 2000 is only 38 percent of the rate of churn from 1950 to 2000, indicating that median job tenure is actually lengthening. “In other words, rather than a period of enormous disruption, this has been one of surprising stability for much of the American workforce,” the article says.

The Young Move More

“What we’ve seen with the data over the years is that tenure is more of a function of age,” said Emy Sok, economist in the division of labor force statistics at the BLS. Tenure of people in their 20s has been mostly flat since the 1980s, when data collection on this trend began. BLS data finds that the trend of tenure is not so much a generational issue, but rather is a characteristic of where someone is in the employee life cycle, Sok said.

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So the story that millennials job hop a lot is true, but they don’t really differ from previous generations.

“It’s an old story in many ways,” said Steve Nyce, a senior economist at Willis Towers Watson and director of the firm’s Research and Innovation Center, adding that he saw the same news stories in the 1980s and 1990s, when the labor market was also healthy. With a focus on attracting and retaining valuable workers comes the fear that certain groups will leave for other opportunities. Tenure matters to employers because replacing valuable talent that has firm-specific knowledge is expensive.

People tend to focus on segments of the workforce that are new and provocative to tell an interesting story, Nyce said. “The problem is we just haven’t seen it show up in the statistics,” he said.

Furthermore, among those that do job hop more than others, they aren’t necessarily representative of the rest of their cohort. “Within any age group, like the millennials, there are a number of individuals who are that profile of a job hopper,” Nyce said. And there are millennials who prefer long-term employment and the benefits that accompany a stable job. “I think there is this mix that has always been there,” he said. “We just tend to focus on this new, more provocative group than we do on that group that looks a lot like the old, traditional employee who wants a career employment.”

Concerns Remain

While tenure remains largely unchanged, employment today looks far different than the past. Internet accessibility and platforms that facilitate job movement, such as LinkedIn and freelancing platforms, could help those with higher churn, Nyce said.

But, will the narrative of job-hopping millennials lead to a negative investment in employees? Nyce doesn’t think so, though the shifting age demographics of the workforce are changing how business leaders structure teams, he said, such as through flattened organizational structures and more focused career paths. Employers are simply trying to maintain employee engagement among all age groups.

However, the perception that certain groups of employees frequently change jobs could impact investment, said Mark Schug, professor emeritus at University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee and president of Mark Schug Consulting Services. “To the extent that this stereotype is allowed to exist, it probably does interfere,” he said. Employers could spend a lot of time and money on training in hopes of building loyalty, but there is a fear that the employee will simply leave and take knowledge with them.

“It’s not an easy call for how much training a business wishes to invest in its workers,” he said.

According to Gallup’s May 2016 study “Millennials: The Job-Hopping Generation,” millennials are the most likely generation today to switch jobs. However, “it’s possible that many millennials actually don’t want to switch jobs, but their companies aren’t giving them compelling reasons to stay,” the report says. “When millennials see what appears to be a better opportunity, they have every incentive to take it. While millennials can come across as wanting more and more, the reality is that they just want a job that feels worthwhile — and they will keep looking until they find it.”

Among those millennials who are frequently switching jobs, “they should!” Schug said. Because many millennials entered the labor market during the Great Recession and likely have student loan debt, they started their careers with a lower salary and more debt than previous generations. They are trying to catch up to their older counterparts in terms of wages.

“Even if they were hopping a lot, I would say, ‘More power to them,’ ” Schug said.

Lauren Dixon is an associate editor at Talent Economy. To comment, email editor@talenteconomy.io.