Millennials (those born on or after 1980) have often been characterized as a fickle generation who change jobs and employers frequently in search of the next opportunity.  Research has shown that Millennials have unrealistic expectations for themselves in terms of their career advancement.  They are impatient to succeed and are unwilling to stay put and pay their dues.  Therefore, it should come as no surprise for Millennials to be perceived as opportunistic and disloyal.

Indeed, commentators and researchers have said that “modern careers,” one that is characterized by high career mobility is the new normal.  Historically, the traditional career entails choosing one’s career path early in life, advancement that is based on age, tenure, and experience, and long-term employment with one or two employers.  In contrast, a modern career is “boundaryless” (greater movement between employers, occupations, geography) and “protean” (self-directed with an emphasis on psychological satisfaction). 

A Canadian study examined the frequency in which Millennials change jobs and employers relative to previous generations.  Matures (or Veterans) are those born prior to 1945; Baby Boomers are born between 1945 and 1964; and Gen Xers are born between 1965 and 1979.  In order to rule out "life cycle" effects, the study focused on career moves up to age 30 (the oldest Millennials at the time of study), to facilitate consistent comparison across the four generations.  The study found that, by age 30:

Eddy Ng
Source: Eddy Ng
  • Millennials have had an average of 6.4 job changes and 3.5 employer changes;
  • Gen Xers averaged 3.7 job and 2.1 employer changes;
  • Baby Boomers averaged 2.4 job and 3.0 employer changes; and
  • Matures averaged 2.1 job and 1.9 employer changes.

Millennials have almost twice as many job and organizational changes as Gen Xers, and almost three times as many job changes as the Baby Boomers and Matures.  Challenging economic conditions, great expectations for themselves in terms of career advancement, and changing attitudes towards work in favour of lifestyle explain the high degree of job and employer changes among the Millennials.

Eddy Ng
Source: Eddy Ng

The study also examined career changes after age 30 (except for Millennials).  Most career changes for the other generations occurred between the ages of 20-24 (career exploration stage) and 30-34 (career establishment).  Baby Boomers (and Matures) have decreasing job changes between age 45-65 (career maintenance), but increasing number of employers.  Economic conditions are likely to explain “second careers” among Baby Boomers as they retool and reinvent themselves. 

The study suggests an increasing “boundarylessness” in individual career patterns with successive generations.  However, career mobility is likely not the result of self-directedness or personal choice alone, as Baby Boomers (and Matures) also reported a greater number of job changes in later life.  Thus, the increased job and employer changes among Millennials, as reported in popular press, are not merely a unique characteristic of their generation.

Eddy Ng is F.C. Manning Chair in Economics and Business at Dalhousie University, Canada. He along with Sean Lyons (lead author), Linda Schweitzer, and Lisa Kuron coauthored “Career mobility patterns across four generations” in the Career Development International (Emerald) and “How have careers changed?” in the Journal of Managerial Psychology (Emerald).  Follow Ed on Twitter @profng.

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