How Many Times Will People Change Jobs? The Myth of the...

Jobs & Careers

How Many Times Will People Change Jobs? The Myth of the Endlessly-Job-Hopping Millennial

By Jeffrey R. Young     Jul 20, 2017

How Many Times Will People Change Jobs? The Myth of the Endlessly-Job-Hopping Millennial

During a recent interview with EdSurge, a LinkedIn executive made the offhand comment that people will change careers 15 times over their lifetimes. The sound of a record-needle scratching cued in my head, and I thought: Is that even possible?

To be fair, the LinkedIn official meant to say people will change jobs 15 times, so some of those switches would be along the same career path. And maybe that number is right, but the narrative is that the number is going up fast.

So just how volatile will the job market be for today’s college graduates?

It’s a question that’s especially important as upstart education providers make the case that people will need lifelong learning more than ever in an increasingly dynamic job environment. Yes, tech is changing fast, so that feels true in the gut. But what do the numbers say about whether actual job hopping is increasing?

It turns out that the conventional wisdom looks exaggerated, or even wrong.

First of all, there’s no solid data on how many times people will change careers over a lifetime. As a fact sheet at the Bureau of Labor Statistics points out, the main challenge there is defining what counts as a career change.

The fact sheet puts it this way:

“Did a construction worker who decided to start his own home-remodeling business experience a career change? What about a newspaper reporter who became a TV news anchor? Each of these examples involves a change in occupation, industry, or both, but do they represent career changes? Most people probably would agree that a medical doctor who quits to become a comedian experienced a career change, but most ‘career changes’ probably are not so dramatic.”

So what about job switching (which economists refer to as “churn”)?

LinkedIn has crunched the numbers for some of its 500 million users, looking back 20 years. Their economists say the data does show a jump in employment churn, especially among millennials. And that churn seems to be accelerating—especially in certain industries, said Guy Berger, an economist at LinkedIn, in an interview with EdSurge this week. Their study found that millennials will change jobs an average of four times in their first decade out of college, compared to about two job changes by Gen Xers their first ten years out of college.

But Berger says that perceptions of millennials will continue to be hyper job-hoppers is often exaggerated by others—because that demographic is at the stage of their lives when job changing is more common (so they might even find a job they like and stick with it, as people historically do as they do things like have kids.) “It’s not like millennials sort of hopped on the scene and people [only then] started job hopping,” he says.

And the limitation of the LinkedIn data, of course, is that it only sees people who choose to use that particular social network.

Broader data shows that when you look at the overall labor market in the U.S. people are actually changing jobs less these days.

“The notion that the number of jobs that people are going to have throughout their life is increasingly drastically is actually false,” says Doug Weber, an associate professor of economics at Temple University. “If you look over the past 10 to 15 years, the rate of churn has gone down,” he says. “This completely goes against this narrative, but that’s what the data says.” He points to work by John Haltiwanger, an economics professor at the University of Maryland at College Park, and his website points to a trove of data to back Weber’s point.

“I don’t think that there’s a good consensus yet as to what the cause of the decline is,” says Weber. “It could be that the new jobs that are being created just aren’t as productive or enticing as they used to be, or it could be that people themselves are less willing to move” for a new job.

He points out that the economic crisis of 2008 may especially have left people reluctant to leave the safety net of family and friends to seek a better job in another town or city.

Many economists agree that people today are likely to hold more jobs over their lifetimes than their great-grandparents did.

“There is actually very clearly a long-term trend that if we’re talking about generations, current generations do switch jobs more clearly, for sure,” says Judith Scott-Clayton, an associate professor of economics and education at Teachers College Columbia University. “When you step back and look at today compared to generations ago, people do change jobs more today.”

The best data the Bureau of Labor Statistics has on how many jobs people hold in a lifetime is a longterm study that has followed baby boomers through most of their careers up until now. On average, people in that study held 11.7 jobs between age 18 and 48. About 27 percent of them were particularly prone to hop, holding 15 jobs or more, while 10 percent held zero to four jobs.

Weber concedes that even if the perception of job-hopping is exaggerated, it’s still good advice to look for opportunities to update your skills, since the working world is changing fast, even for people who stay in the same job.

And Berger points out that the rise of contract work also complicates the picture when comparing how jobs are changing.

But resumes of the future may not be so much longer than they are today.

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