Millennials want to be job-hopping generation. But economy won’t let them.


Quint Gribbin, on his rooftop deck in Baltimore, reflects on the first semi-permanent state he has been in since graduating college. He just signed a one-year lease for his apartment. (Andre Chung for The Washington Post)

In the three short years since Quint Gribbin graduated with a degree in physics from William and Mary, rated one of the nation’s top 10 public universities, he has churned through six jobs.

He has bounced around internships at physics labs, worked on a couple of political campaigns, sharpened skates at a hockey rink and cooked up goo in North Dakota for the fracking fields as a “hydraulic fracturing fluid technician.”

After quitting that job, Gribbin held out for the perfect one, resisting his mother’s pleas to pump gas at the airport or coach lacrosse. He was unemployed for five months, crashing on a buddy’s couch, reading and teaching himself statistics, before landing his current, and seventh, gig.

Although he really likes his new job as a data scientist at Red Owl Analytics, a data mining start-up in Baltimore, Gribbin has no five-year plan. “I’d like to stay here for at least two years, but we’ll see,”  the 25-year-old says. “I’m not sure any start-up anywhere has a five-year trajectory.”

Job-hopping among younger workers has slowed as a result of the Great Recession, as it has for all workers. Economists worry that this is a bad sign, particularly when it comes to younger workers — fewer young people trading up for better jobs could mean better jobs are scarce. But surveys suggest that as soon as the right opportunity presents itself, more millennials will follow in Gribbin’s peripatetic footsteps. Many of them say they expect to switch employers every year or two at most.

As the economy improves, some experts wonder if this generation, scorched and shaped by a high unemployment rate and a rapidly shifting economy, and pushed by their own ideals, will be the first to keep job-hopping, and buck the trend of settling in as they age.

That is, if they can get a job in the first place.

“It’s a different game now,”  said Anthony P. Carnevale, director and research professor of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce. “Employers are demanding much higher skills requirements at the entry level. The possibilities for learning and earning on the job are better than they ever were. But only if you can get your foot through the door, and stay in.”

And that requires skills that stand out among the competition. To get them, many college-educated millennials take on unpaid or poorly paid internships, or stay on just long enough to add a new notch to their belts.

But there’s a more intrinsic driver behind the wanderlust. More than any previous generation, the millennials — defined roughly as those between their late teens and mid-30s — want their work to be their passion. Psychologist Jeffrey Jensen Arnett’s surveys of millenials for Clark University have found that 79 percent say it’s more important to enjoy their job than to make money. Eighty-six percent want a career that does some good in the world, although nearly two-thirds say they haven’t found it yet.

“This really is a new ideal, that you should enjoy your job, and that that’s a reasonable expectation from work,” Arnett said.  “Millennials get criticized a lot for asking too much out of life. But why not? Why not look for something you’re going to enjoy rather than something that’s a dreary obligation?”

***

Following your passion was something Gribbin heard a lot about growing up in Leesburg, Va. For as long as he could remember, that’s what his parents, his teachers and his counselors told people of his generation to do.

At the same time, those counselors were warning Gribbin and his classmates to “be ready to be mobile,” Gribbin said. “That you have to be aware that you are easily replaceable. So you have to rely most on your own skills.”

Quint Gribbin rolls his bicycle out of his basement room as he prepares to ride to a game of ultimate frisbee. (Andre Chung/For The Washington Post) Quint Gribbin rolls his bicycle out of his basement room as he prepares to ride to a game of ultimate frisbee. (Andre Chung/For The Washington Post)

Gribbin chose to study physics at William and Mary because it came easily to him. But he didn’t consider a graduate degree in the subject because he wasn’t passionate enough about it. There wasn’t physics problem he was dying to solve, he said.

In fact, that’s how he has come to define his ideal career — a quest to solve one interesting problem after another. After he’d solve one to his satisfaction, his skills further honed, it would be time to move on to the next challenge.

The notion of working for the same company for years, choosing stability over evolution, confused him.  “You follow your skill set,” he explained. “Not a company.”

After graduation, Gribbins was offered a job solving interesting problems as an engineer with a defense contracting company in Washington, D.C.  Then the offer was rescinded because of budget cuts.

So he put his ideals aside to figure out how to pay the rent. He worked in the William and Mary physics lab as a paid intern over the summer, before deciding Washington was where he wanted to be. In 2011, he moved into a one-bedroom apartment in Arlington with two friends and quickly discovered how tight the job market was, particularly for someone with only a B.S. degree.

So he took any jobs he could find. He worked on a local political campaign. He sharpened skates at an ice-skating rink.  He juggled that with an unpaid internship at the physics lab at Georgetown from February until August 2012, until the grant money ran out.

A friend got Gribbin a job in the national security group on the transition team of 2012 GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney. One month after Romney’s defeat, Gribbin was on his way to join North Dakota’s fracking boom. He stayed until October 2013, when he decided he couldn’t stand it any longer.

“In North Dakota, if something’s going wrong with someone, you threaten to eat his lunch,” Gribbin said. “I felt I was losing the soft skills you need for working in a corporate environment.”

He moved back to Washington. With some money saved, he decided he wouldn’t settle for just any job this time.

Luke Mancini, a friend from middle school who, like Gribbin, had churned through four jobs in three years, and even endured his “worst nightmare” of moving  back home for a few months, offered Gribbin a couch to sleep on and free rent, as long as Gribbin cooked and cleaned up.

For nearly eight months, Gribbin cooked, cleaned, worked out, read and listened to podcasts. He taught himself statistics and a statistical computer programming language, searching for his passion and a compelling problem to solve. “I was a little worried,” Mancini said. “I kept asking, ‘Are you sure you aren’t going after the White Stag? The unicorn that does not exist?’ ”


Quint Gribbin speaks with Senior Data Scientist Brian Godsey, 33, about a coding problem he encountered. Gribbin, 25, a data scientist for Red Owl Analytics, has held several jobs and moved around the country multiple times over the past couple of years.
(Andre Chung for The Washington Post)

Gribbin’s mother, Molly Gribbin, was worried, too. She suggested that her son get a job as a lacrosse coach, because he played the sport in high school and college. She urged him to apply for an opening at the airport, telling him that any job was better than no job. But it dawned on her that this need or desire to switch jobs might become a way of life for her son and his six siblings, one she hadn’t prepared them for.  “I don’t think it’s going to be like anything I’ve seen, or my husband’s seen,” she said.

But Gribbin’s father sees the upside in waiting for the right opportunity. “Quint’s been getting exposed to so many different things, I’m actually kind of excited for him,” said DJ Gribbin, a lawyer and businessman.

Quint Gribbin kept reading. Lectures in physics. Statistics in a nutshell. And a novel here and there. It was through his reading and Google searches that he discovered the emerging field of data analysis. Gribbin called a friend, who introduced him to someone from the Romney transition team. That friend had a friend who’d just started Red Owl Analytics. The friend made an introduction, and that was enough to get Gribbin in the door for an interview in April.

Most of Red Owl’s data scientists have advanced degrees. But the owners liked Gribbin, so they offered him an internship. And when the start-up got a $4 million influx of cash in June, they converted his position to a full-time data scientist.

In the silent and brightly lit Red Owl Analytics office, in the trendy Federal Hill neighborhood of Baltimore, Gribbin stares at his computer screen. He’s working on a project for a client code-named Oxygen – all clients are named for elements – and he’s stuck.

Line after line of incomprehensible code in a strange diagonal pattern fills the screen.

“I ran into an intractable problem,” he says in his deep, sleepy voice to Brian Godsey, a senior data scientist .

Unless Gribbin figures it out, the data he’s mining won’t display in the proper symmetrical columns on a spreadsheet, rendering the report he’s working on incomprehensible. The two puzzle over a series of parentheses and back slashes. They finally decide Gribbin will need to go through the entire code line by line to debug it.


Gribbin unwinds after work with a game of Ultimate Frisbee. Most of the guys he plays with are also millennial scientists who are either in academia or the job force. (Andre Chung for The Washington Post)

At 5:30 p.m., Gribbin closes his laptop and walks a few blocks to the rowhouse he found on Craigslist that he shares with two roommates he also found on Craigslist – millennials who’ve also burned through three and four jobs in as many years. Books are piled on the floor near the bed he borrowed from a neighbor. Rather than buy a dresser, he hung the five pairs of dress socks and three pairs of athletic socks on nails he hammered into the wall. “My whole apartment screams impermanence,” he says.

But he doesn’t mind. Buying a house. Investing in a retirement plan. A steady job. Gribbin has little faith in the trappings that once were associated with stability and a secure future. “Most of my peers would never put their trust in investments like that,” he says matter-of-factly. “Why pour all your money into something, when the value can so easily disappear and you lose it all?”

Gribbin defines security differently: Investing in himself, in his education and his skills, and building a community of talented people who know who he is and what he can do and can pull him along with them to the next job. Because as the economy continues to shift, it is the people you know who will pull you along with them to the next job, he says. “That, to me, is a greater source of security than any 401(k) or some other investment.”

After witnessing the shock of the last boom-bust cycle, he has his own definition of success, too.

“Success is being able to help the people around you more than you need help from them,” he says. “You don’t need to own lots of things.”

The trim, athletic Gribbin changes into blue shorts and a bright orange T-shirt, laces up his cleats and lifts his bike off a rack on the wall. In a light rain, he pedals across town to the Ultimate Frisbee pick-up game he plays every week, where the conversation among millennials on the sidelines is about TV shows binge-watched during unemployment spells, how pie-in-the-sky it feels to think you’ll ever get a job as a professor with your hard-earned degree in comparative literature and how the new Holy Grail is being an entrepreneur.

“I’d just like to create a company,” says one as others nod, “and be able to sell it for a couple million.”

Later, Gribbin planned to talk with his roommates about signing a one-year lease on the apartment this month. It feels weird to him. Maybe it’s a signal that he’s ready to settle down, he thinks.

Maybe not.

All the while, in the back of his mind, Gribbin is mulling over the marching lines of parenthesis and backslashes in the broken code. He’ll have fixed it the next day by 2 p.m. But tonight, he revels in the fact that he’s fully absorbed in solving an interesting problem. For now.

 

Brigid Schulte writes about Good-Life: work-life issues, time, productivity, gender and income inequality. She is the author of the bestselling Overwhelmed: Work, Love and Play when No One has Time.

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