The ideal job of the 1950s looked a great deal like a marriage. As Fortune editor William Whyte wrote in his classic workplace study The Organization Man, by midcentury, the ranks of the rapidly growing white-collar workforce became filled with young men who had left their hometowns to devote themselves to their companies. It was an anonymous, bureaucratic turn for the supposedly ruggedly individualistic American economy. In turn, the employers, flush with profits in the postwar economic boom and wanting to retain their talent, offered a steady stream of promotions and carrots, like health insurance and pensions, that kept people tied to their employer. Then the job-hoppers arrived and consigned the organization man to history.
The dominant media narrative of the last several decades pinned the blame for this on Gen Z and millennial up-and-comers, often painted as the mercenaries who killed off corporate loyalty—ready to walk the minute they don’t get all they ask for, and the driving force behind the Great Resignation, “quiet quitting,” “rage applying,” and any number of similar workforce trends.
But the federal government itself has weighed in with new data that exposes this has been a lie. The original job-hoppers were none other than the baby boomers, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, who switched employers at least as much, and possibly more frequently, than millennials did at the same age.
In particular, men born in the second half of the baby boom era, 1957 to 1964, had racked up an impressive 10 jobs by the time they turned 34, and averaged 12.7 jobs by the time they turned 56, the BLS noted in a recently released report. Most of that job-hopping, as one might expect, happened early in their careers, with, on average, just under one job per year between ages 18 and 24, more than millennials did at the same age.
“In the beginning of your career, you sample the job market, you look around and see what is available, and you don’t get into stability until you’re in your 30s or 40s. That is a pattern that’s always held true,” said sociologist Arne Kalleberg, who teaches at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.
Indeed, rather than belonging to a particular generation, job-hopping appears to be a byproduct of the modern economy: a behavior that most workers experience early in their career (something they often forget that they had done once they’re more established). Like Gen Zers today, millennials and Generation X and, yes, even boomers had to contend with accusations that their desire for meaningful work, decent pay, and work-life balance were unreasonable. In fact, the boomers initiated the rebellion against the “organization man” mindset of their parents, Kalleberg said.
“Young people in the late ’60s, and ’70s began to criticize this view of work, because it was part of the establishment. They started rejecting the materialism of their parents and saying, ‘we’re going to find self-actualization,’” Kalleberg said.
“They rejected this idea of working for the man, which is exactly what’s happening now,” he added.
More stable than their predecessors
If anything, compared with their predecessors, millennials job-hopped at a slower rate. According to BLS figures, older millennials—those born between 1980 and 1984—had held an average of seven jobs by age 28, one less than baby boomers at the same age. At age 34, millennials averaged 8.6 jobs, about one less than baby boomers at the same age.
Blame the 2007 financial crisis, the Great Recession that followed, and the excruciatingly slow “jobless recovery” that hit young people hardest. Job hopping is one sign of a strong economy—workers don’t move unless they have somewhere to move to. In the decade after the recovery and until the pandemic, “the labor market just hasn’t been as tight, so people didn’t have as many opportunities to switch jobs,” said Nick Bunker, chief economist at job board Indeed.
Another reason, economists say, is that today’s young people stay in school longer and take more time to formally enter the job market, which reduces the number of jobs they hold on average during their lifetimes. And the heavy student debt load racked up by young graduates has also likely made them less inclined to take risks by job-switching.
In fact, while some pundits today worry that the stereotypical younger worker is “disengaged” or “doesn’t see a future” with their employer, as Gallup wrote in a poll this year, it wasn’t so long ago that economists had the opposite worry—that younger workers don’t move around enough.
In 2016, the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco highlighted “a pronounced decline in the job switching behavior of young workers,” and mused whether those workers were choosing job security “at the cost of diminished experimentation with different jobs.” That same year, another set of Federal Reserve researchers highlighted the trend at a Brookings Institution symposium, noting that “Less fluidity in the labor market leads to fewer opportunities for workers… and thus may have important implications for the macro economy in general.”
No more ‘organization man’
The data also makes clear that the archetype of the “company man” who stays in a single job for his entire career was well on the decline by the time baby boomers came of age. To be sure, some of the boomer generation who started working in the late 1970s and early 1980s had this experience of stability. But this was also the decade that ushered in massive de-industrialization, the transition from a goods to a services economy, the decline of unions that had protected workers and encouraged company loyalty, and the mass layoff as a corporate strategy. (One of the strategy’s early proponents, General Electric CEO Jack Welch, eliminated a quarter of the company’s jobs in the first half of the 1980s, Quartz notes.)
Against the backdrop of this ever-more-uncertain economy, it’s no wonder that younger generations have tended to switch jobs less and less. The decades of the early 2000s, in which workers stayed put more and more, skewed Americans’ perception of what a “normal” job market looks like, noted Indeed’s Bunker. “We got used to such low levels of quitting and job switching, that [after the pandemic] when it went back to where it was in the year 2000, people got angsty,” he said.
Outside of a layoff, job hopping has well-documented benefits for workers. Getting a new job is usually the easiest way to get a raise, with pay for job switchers consistently rising faster than for those who keep the same job, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta. The young boomers who switched jobs nearly every year at the start of their careers saw annual pay jumps of 6.5%, the BLS found. Pay—the reason most humans work—remains a major motivator today. When consulting firm McKinsey earlier this year asked workers why they took a new job, nearly all groups gave the same No. 1 reason: More pay.
“Worker mobility—the ability to find and take another job—is at the core of worker power,” economists at the Economic Policy Institute, a left-leaning think tank, wrote last year.
Not only that, but higher rates of job-switching are associated with a more productive economy overall, according to a recent working paper issued by the National Bureau of Economic Research.
“Over the long term, people moving around and finding the best fit for their career is going to be a good thing for productivity,” said Jesse Wheeler, senior economist at the business intelligence company Morning Consult. “Ultimately we want people doing jobs they like as much as possible and they are good at.”
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