The Seven Month Itch

Recently I listened to an interview with a departing executive from a major entertainment company. And after the usual round-about responses of “Oh, I love this company,” and “I’m incredibly grateful for the opportunities I’ve been given here,” the executive finally answered the interviewer’s question of why he was suddenly leaving during one of the most exciting periods in the company’s history. He said quite candidly, “I’ve just hit my seven year itch. It’s time to move on.”

I admit, I had no idea what a seven year itch was, so I had to look it up. Apart from the movie staring Marilyn Monroe where her iconic white dress gets ruffled above the subway vent, “the seven year itch” is also a popular phrase among psychologists that is used to describe declining interest in a long-term relationship. And while the phrase is usually applied to romantic relationships, it is also sometimes applied to our relationship with our career.

And that’s not too surprising. Seven years is a long time. I’m not sure that I own anything that’s seven years old. So it’s not a great shock that after seven years of working in the same department, or for the same company, we can get a little “itchy.” In fact, what might be the real surprise is that this entertainment executive had actually been at the same company for so long!

One of the taboos of young professionals we’ve discussed before is that business leaders look at young professionals as unreliable, someone who will only work here a few years, or maybe only a few months, before they want to leave. And they’re not wrong. Young professionals likely are changing jobs at a more rapid rate than previous generations. But interestingly, while Gen-Y is usually associated with all of the negative stereotypes about job-hopping, it’s not just young professionals who are doing it.

A recent survey conducted by Careerbuilder said that as many as 45% of employees only plan to stay at their company for one or two years. That’s incredible! Nearly half of current employees enter into a new job already with the mindset of leaving their new company. Not too long ago, someone whose resume labeled them as a “job-hopper,” wouldn’t have even made it past the first round of applications.

So if so many employees are switching (or anticipating switching) jobs frequently, then it seems pretty clear that the negative stigma against job-hopping is fading quickly. Now, I doubt that many employers would be keen to hire someone who leaves a job after only three months, but as young professionals begin to move into management positions themselves, there seems to be less and less stigma against hiring someone who was only at their last job for a year or two.

Instead of a seven year itch, it seems like the new standard for dissatisfaction in our careers may actually be a seven month itch. And if that’s the case, why is it happening, and what can employers do to avoid losing key talent?

Well, the first part of that question is actually pretty easy to answer. As the stigma against job-hopping fades, it makes it much easier and more appealing for young professionals to explore new opportunities. Instead of the old practice of having to rely on a single company to promote you and match contributions to a 401K for decades, many young professionals are now moving from company to company to rise quickly through the ranks as well as increase their salaries. Home-ownership among young professionals is also at an all-time low, which means uprooting and moving across the country is becoming more of an adventure and less of a hassle. So in short, if there’s no penalty against my leaving after only a year if I’m unhappy, why shouldn’t I do it?

If salaries and promotions await young professionals who want to switch jobs, does that mean the employers should just expect their top talent to leave every few years? That’s probably a bit extreme. What it does mean however, is that companies will need to shift how they invest in their employees given the ease of changing career and the opportunities that exist in job-hopping.

And investment goes beyond just updating a company’s culture. While a beer tap in the break room is cool, the reality is that that novelty wears off after a few months and eventually, we all start to feel the familiar itch. We start to ask ourselves the same questions: Where is this going? Am I happy here? Do I see myself becoming a leader at this company? At the reality that employers are going to have to deal with is that if someone’s answer to any of those questions is “no,” the chances are very high that the company will lose that individual.

In a recent study conducted by LinkedIn, 36% of participants said that they had switched jobs simply because they were unsatisfied with their work environment. Think about that for just a minute. Nearly half of employees enter into a new job with an established mindset of leaving after one or two years, and more than a third of employees are willing to leave a job because they’re unhappy with their day-to-day work life. Bottom line: Not only are employees (not just young professionals) constantly looking around for the next great opportunity, if they see it’s not with their current company, they will leave without hesitation!

Investment in young professionals is a consistent theme that we’ve discussed in this series, yet it routinely seems to fall to the bottom of employers’ to-do lists. The normalization of job-hopping has accelerated young professionals’ expectations for advancement and the reality is that if you don’t invest in me in some meaningful way within the first few months, I will be more motivated than ever to leave once I start to feel the seven month itch.

Of course, young professionals shouldn’t be elevated to management or given high-risk responsibilities just to keep them on on-board, but the timetable to feel a meaningful engagement within a company has gone from years to months. In order to retain top talent, employers need to establish a path for employee development early on and find ways to make the operation of the business real for their employees.