Millennials aren’t changing jobs as much. That’s a big problem for the economy

September 4, 2014

Have recent generations become habitual job hoppers? Probably not.

Every two years, the Census Bureau asks a sample of Americans how long they have been at their current jobs. But for young people, that number has not changed much in the past 30 years.

If anything, Millennials seem to be sticking with their jobs longer than their counterparts did a decade ago. The median length of job tenure for 25-34 year olds was 3.2 years in 2012, up from 2.7 years in 2002. Note the spike in job tenure length during the financial crisis.


This is not necessarily a good thing. Economists tend to view voluntary job hopping as beneficial to people early in their careers. Think of it as trading up: people often change jobs because they find a position that’s better paying or a better fit. It’s believed that the recession stymied some of these transitions because it has made finding a new job much harder. We can see the decline in voluntary job quits for all workers (not just young ones) here:

The graph shows that the quit rate plummeted during the recovery, and has only recently been climbing back. Everyone lucky enough to have a job is clinging to it because the alternative options are few.

We can also measure how often people change jobs by referring to national surveys that follow the same group of people over a long period of time. When economists compare people who started their careers in the ’80s with people who started their careers in the ’00s, they find that the two generations are more or less identical in terms of how often people change jobs—at least, before the Great Recession threw a wrench into matters.


All these charts tell the same story. First, among young people there doesn’t seem to be a systematic, long-term trend toward more frequent job hopping. And second, in the short term, the 2007-2009 recession was associated with a sharp decrease in how often people change jobs. Whether or not the rate of job changing will return to historic levels remains to be seen.

So why does the image of the flighty, job-hopping Millennial persist? In part, it’s a tradition. Older generations have always loved to point out how younger generations act, well, young — forgetting, perhaps, their own youthful turns.

The statistics discussed here have one weakness, though. They only show the picture for people who already have jobs, whereas one of the biggest problems facing Millennials is finding employment in the first place. The unemployment rate in 2013 was 12.8 percent among 20-24 year olds and 8.1 percent among 25-29 year olds, compared to 7.4 percent overall.

The people struggling from internship to internship aren’t fully captured in these surveys, though their job hopping is not entirely voluntary. Who knows how the experience of long-term semi-employment will affect them? Maybe when they find a steady job they will never want to let go. Or, they might be more willing to change jobs in the future because the abuses of the recession helped them discover some inner entrepreneurial grit.

We can’t predict what the lasting effects of the recession will be. But for now, we are seeing less job-hopping for the employed, and more—forced—job hopping for the people on the fringes.

Jeff Guo is a staff writer for Storyline. He's from Maryland (but outside the Beltway). Follow him on Twitter: @_jeffguo.
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