Confessions of a Serial (Job) Monogamist

If you think that millennials are the only ones who job hop, I’m living proof that job hopping is not limited to millennials — I’m 47 and have had five jobs in the past three years and eight jobs in the past decade. By choice…I wasn’t fired from any of them. All were good jobs by any standard — decent pay, good benefits, good companies. But obviously they weren’t great jobs with great pay at great companies or I wouldn’t be writing this. What’s wrong with me, you’re probably asking, tsk-tsking and/or shaking your head in disgust…you, with your loyalty to the employer you’ve been with for five, 10, 15, 20 or more years. Nobody will ever hire you again, you’re thinking…because your track record shows you’re an unreliable, flighty employee who isn’t worth the risk of hiring since odds are you’ll just leave within a year.

That’s the thing, though — people do keep hiring me. And — fingers crossed — will keep hiring me until I either find the right fit or resign myself to being either a serial job monogamist for life or decide to go back to being my own boss. And you — with your decades of tenure in your job, comfy in the knowledge that you are irreplaceable because of your institutional knowledge and the fact that loyalty is rewarded in the workplace…if I were you, I wouldn’t get too comfortable. I’ve seen your kind get let go and it wasn’t pretty. I’d much rather live a life of job hopping then complacency followed by dazed inertia when faced with finding a new job.

While job hopping is generally seen as the mark of someone lazy and irresponsible and not worth the trouble to hire, I personally think that it’s actually the opposite. Someone who is able to get re-hired job after job, in spite of a resume that looks like swiss cheese to many, is obviously doing something right because they’re getting hired, time after time. Contrast that with the person who, after being in the same job for 15 or 20 years gets laid off and is unable to get another job to save his/her life…is job loyalty all it’s really cracked up to be when you get right down to it?

In my travels across various workplaces as either a staff person or a consultant, I’m here to tell you that, for the most part, the people who have been there the longest aren’t the most valuable…not by a landslide. Obviously there are exceptions — there are many smart, talented employees who have been in their positions for a long time and continue to grow and evolve, bringing their best to work most days and continuing to bring value to their companies. But there are also so, so many overpaid, underachieving hangers-on who are in their jobs for one reason only: because they’re complacent. Oh — and another reason — because they know, or should know, that if they were to enter the job market today, they’d be shit out of luck because they haven’t kept up their skills and have gotten used to phoning it in. Complacency combined with the bloated salaries that most lifers enjoy despite the fact that their skills are often woefully inadequate in terms of what today’s business requirements demand means that their value in today’s job market is pretty crappy.

Contrast that with the job hopper. So sure, they don’t have a decade or two of loyalty to one company. But what they do have, most likely, is a skillset and work ethic that has kept them competitive enough to continue to score job after job in a tricky job market. It’s not like these people — ok, “these people” being, in my particular case, me — are just reporting for duty at job after job and being fired because they suck. Absolutely the opposite is true in my case and, I’m pretty sure, the cases of others who have embraced job hopping as a career choice. In order to be able to pull off serial monogamy in the workplace, you need to have top-notch skills and an impeccable work ethic. Your resume has to shine super bright to convince the average hiring manager that you’re worth talking to in spite of your abysmal track record with staying in one place for very long. In my case, that’s meant constantly learning and upgrading my skills both on the job and outside of work. Reading a ton, volunteering, researching what skills are valuable and rare among job applicants and, whenever possible, teaching myself those skills. It basically means having two jobs — your 9–5 job and the ongoing task of making sure you are as on-point as possible in terms of skills. While other employees refuse to take on new tasks, pouting “that’s not my job,” I always say yes to new things…even when the additional workload and need to learn something totally new, often on my own time, sometimes scares the crap out of me and makes me wish I could go back to the good old days of boring admin work. The way I see it is that sure, it’s extra work, but it’s also another line on my resume and something I can bring to my next job search if and when I get there. As much as I’d love to be a person who gets home at 6 pm and doesn’t think about work until I arrive at the office the next morning, I don’t have that luxury. I read. I write. I network. All to keep myself marketable in the event that the day comes where the camel’s back is yet again broken and I find myself job searching. Again.

Let’s be honest…nobody WANTS to be a serial job hopper. Don’t you think I’d like to be able to just settle in and be complacent like the next guy, enjoying more and more vacation as each year ticks by, an ever-fattening 401 k balance, and annual raises ensuring that, at some point, I’m being totally overpaid for the job I’m actually doing? Who wouldn’t want that? I wish I could be that person who could just keep her eyes on the prize and show up, day after day, year after year, ignoring all the little cracks in the illusion of the perfect workplace that she walked into on her first day of the job? How awesome would that be? I have tried so, so hard to be that person; to just let work be a paycheck and nothing more….but apparently I can’t. Inefficiencies, bad management, stupid business practices that hurt the company but are the rule because a mediocre or worse leader said so, expensive technology that doesn’t deliver but that managers keep because it would be too much trouble to replace, really bad employees who poison the workplace but who are smug in their tenure because they think they’re irreplaceable and have managed to convince leadership that it’s true…these are all things that the average “normal” worker can just shrug at and overlook. It’s a job, they say. No place is perfect, they say. The grass is always greener, they say. And they stay, complaining but resigned to the status quo because, paycheck.

As much as I’ve fought it — thinking this next place will be IT, the one — I’m slowly coming around to the reality that maybe those millennials are onto something. Or that I’m on to something, for that matter. That maybe I’m not cut out to just grin and bear dysfunctional workplaces or understaffed organizations that will never achieve what they could because they’re bogged down with complacent, underperforming employees who bring down even the most eager newbie employee who wants to come in and do a great job and actually move things forward. Maybe a valid career choice IS taking a job, doing the best work I can for as long as I can stomach the dysfunction or reality of the crazy culture versus the advertised “core values” rhetoric printed on cards that each and every employee is required to have visible on their desks and must memorize for the random spot-checks where they’ll be forced to recite the values on demand, then moving on to the next place. (Because being treated like zombies who must commit fake core values to memory while, at the same time, never questioning management when said values are not actually espoused is obviously “best place to work” worthy.)

Is it so wrong to want to be surrounded by smart, hardworking people who are there because they want to do good work, not because it’s safe and easy and maybe because they have something on a high-up employee and know they can never be fired? Is it wrong to want to work for a great, fair manager who isn’t afraid to do what’s best for the company even though someone might not like them because of it? Or to expect other staff to be committed to lifetime learning and embrace new technology instead of being threatened by it and refusing to learn? Apparently it is wrong, if you go by the average workplace, or at least the ones I’ve had the pleasure/misfortune of working in. Maybe there are truly great companies out there and I just haven’t gotten there yet. Maybe there are strong leaders who don’t put up with bullshit or reward complacency with annual raises for non-performance and look the other way when those employees poison the water for those who see room for growth and excellence and want to be part of that instead of just being part of a train that sits in the station, year after year, doing nothing and going nowhere.

The reality is that, in today’s workplace, unfortunately, it is mostly wrong to want these things and to expect to be more than a station-sitter at a company churning out nothing but mediocrity, full of mediocre or worse employees who are nothing but loyal, even if that loyalty is more a function of laziness and/or fear of the unknown than enthusiasm and strong work ethic. Which is sad because how can a company be great — how can this country be great — when this is our celebrated work ideal — complacency and unwillingness to learn new things — and refusing to settle into a workplace of mediocrity and dysfunction is seen as a red flag rather than a good thing? I may be old, but apparently I’m still as idealistic as a 20-something because I don’t want to settle…not yet. So I’ll just keep on, working hard, learning new things, and seeking the non-broken workplace that rewards these attributes rather than penalizes them. Please tell me it exists because I truly want to believe that it does…despite repeated evidence to the contrary.