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Why It’s Time to Change the Way We Talk About Job Hopping

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Now that changing jobs frequently is increasingly more common, we need new language to describe the phenomenon — “job hopping” doesn’t always cut it.

“The average American changes jobs once every three years; those under the age of 30 change jobs once a year,” writes Richard Florida, an expert on demographic trends.

It’s clear, lots of people are “job hopping” despite its often negative connotation.

Here’s the problem. The term “job hopping” conjures the image of a person balancing on one leg, springing from one place to another. Using only one leg to get around isn’t the most stable way to move, so the implication is that the hopper is shaky, maybe even haphazard.

That doesn’t paint an accurate picture of most “job hoppers.”

My impression — informed by conversations with friends and other job seekers in their 20s — is that most “job hoppers” think very carefully about their transitions and their career trajectories in general.

In fact, many don’t aim to make so many professional moves, but it ends up being the best way to propel their careers forward. They switch frequently because it’s fairly easy to move around when you’re young, and they want to make sure they’re in a job that challenges them and rewards their talents. To achieve that, you have to try things out and learn about yourself and different work environments.

These people who’ve had four different jobs over six years — or whatever the case may be — aren’t carelessly “job hopping,” they’ve elected to undergo a “professional pivot.” So we should call it that.

You hear about pivots all the time from entrepreneurs and people in the startup world. The concept was made popular by Eric Ries, author of “The Lean Startup.” Ries advises a company to test and measure a basic version of its product or service. If the results don’t show that the effort is helping the company grow, it’s time to pivot.

When a company pivots, that’s a reflection that it’s learning. If something doesn’t work, startup employees identify why it didn’t work and then refine their approach based on what they know. There’s a big emphasis on learning by doing.

So-called “job hoppers” are using this approach, recognizing that sometimes it takes a lot of learning — and different experiences — to figure out where to go.

In The Startup of You, LinkedIn cofounder Reid Hoffman (here’s his LinkedIn profile if you’re curious) and entrepreneur Ben Casnocha spend an entire chapter on the importance of adaptation — noting how Flickr, the popular photo sharing website, originally started out as an online game. They point to the story of Flickr as a “case study in smart adapting: its founders were in constant motion early on, tried many things to see what would work, and nimbly shifted their plans based on what they learned.” Reid and Casnocha are correct: “These are the very same strategies that define some of the most inspiring careers.”

Of course, sometimes frequent job changing is indicative of deeper issues. Yes, it can mean that a person is unreliable or impulsive. In these cases, it would be appropriate to say the person is approaching their career with little strategy or purpose.

But that’s just not the right explanation most of the time. That’s why we should have more nuanced discussions about frequent job changes. We should use expressions that accurately describe what we mean and distinguish those who “pivot” — even if they do it very often — from those who are just “job hopping.”

Jaclyn Schiff is managing editor of Brazen Life. When she’s not Brazenly thinking about careers, she can often be found helping clients with social media, writing about global health and media, or tweeting.

Brazen powers real-time, online events for leading organizations around the world. Our lifestyle and career blog, Brazen Life, offers fun and edgy ideas for ambitious professionals navigating the changing world of work.

  • Jrandom42

    And the big question I have for “job hoppers” or “job pivoters” is, “Did you finish the project you were working on? Because it raises red flags for me, when someone leaves a job in the middle of a project, without a good explanation as to why they didn’t finish it.

    • http://www.jaclynschiff.com Jaclyn Schiff

      Good point. There’s definitely a good way and a bad way to leave a job.

      • http://www.newfulcrumpoint.com/ david warner

        In both conditions employee must follow genuine procedure to quit from job.

      • Jrandom42

        I can still remember one young software engineer who had left his job before finishing the project.

        “Why’d you leave before finshing the project?”

        Apparently, he didn’t think of moderating his answer.

        “Well, I only wanted to work on the fun stuff. It stopped being fun, and I left before I had to do the really hard work.”

    • Barbara

      You remind me of a reason for the job hopping pattern not mentioned in the article. Strong systems thinkers often work themselves out of jobs. I once took a process that took 4 people a full week and turned it into one that took one person two days. Result: not enough work to do!

  • Ashleychoffman

    Great article Jacci. As someone who has made several professional pivots (4 jobs in 6 years), I will say that it has definitely allowed me to advance quickly. I have great relationships with all of former bosses and have learned so much by the constant challenge and learning curve. I think it would be interesting to see if there are more job hoppers in larger cities than small-medium sized cities. I know in DC, it’s not uncommon for people to move around every 2-3 years…even beyond the 20s!

    • http://www.jaclynschiff.com Jaclyn Schiff

      Thanks Ashley!! I do think it’s more of “big city” phenomenon. For one thing, there are obviously more opportunities to go around in larger cities. But I would be curious to see how this plays out in smaller places…

  • Jenny

    Thank you for bringing this up – I hope there are more appeals and thoughts as these to come on this issue! Personally, I am also concerned with the involuntary “job hopping” that has become a general global trend. Many simply do not want to have to go through location, home, salary/benefits, people and career changes every two or three years but have no choice if they have ambition and want to (need to!) progress. I am among them. Yet, in this age of job hopping, I still have to defend my CV every single time.

    I’d give a lot to be able to stay with one company for at least five years; my father still worked for the same company all his life! Not that I expect that anymore, I do know better, but the offers to grow with and in a company, to become a keeper, are becoming so rare in many cases…the last company I worked for kept replacing the old hands who were starting to hit their heads on the low ceiling of opportunity and advancement with much younger (and cheaper and less demanding) people without work experience who were given an instant manager title…but would also not be staying beyond 2 years.

    The partners and customers sure noticed that counterproductive cycle, and it did have an impact on how they perceived the company in general. In spite of my natural flexibility, I myself never job-hopped out of choice, and I dread it! I want to settle down somewhere and build up something with a certain sense of security, not have to start from scratch over and over again. Without a doubt there is tremendous opportunity in pivots; I have experienced them myself after all…but it would be nice if we could also choose stay, advance and grow with a company. Someday, I hope, I will find an employer to match my commitment.

    • http://www.jaclynschiff.com Jaclyn Schiff

      Jenny, thanks for your thoughtful comment! I hear your point about wanting to work for the same company for an extended period of time. I think this is going to come off like a “first world” problem, but it IS kind of exhausting to switch jobs a lot, meet new coworkers, navigate a new institution etc. As you point out, it seems that ambitious workers don’t often have the opportunity NOT to move around a lot if they want to keep advancing and challenging themselves. Really great perspective on this!

      • Jenny

        Jaclyn, really appreciate your response! Only heard about this site through this article but I will definitely be coming back to read more. Greetings from the Middle Kingdom!

        • http://www.jaclynschiff.com Jaclyn Schiff

          So great to have you! Looking forward to more great discussions and interactions!

    • Anonymous

      Jenny, I totally can relate to your comment. My guess is that the only employer that’s going to match our level of committment will be ourselves, when we’re running our own companies! =)

      • Jenny

        Aww, you are right, Whitney :o)

  • shelley

    Excellent insight & very informative

    • http://www.jaclynschiff.com Jaclyn Schiff

      Thank you so much!

  • http://Www.searchingforhappy.com/ Alex Conde

    A very interesting point. Too often job hopping is considered a mark of impatience and immaturity rather than a mark of intelligent consideration.

    Professional pivot is certainly a term without the same bad connotations. I like it.

    • http://www.jaclynschiff.com Jaclyn Schiff

      Thank you Alex!

  • http://ben.casnocha.com Ben Casnocha

    Excellent post, Jaclyn! :)

    You nailed it in terms of wrong perception of “job hoppers”…

    • http://www.jaclynschiff.com Jaclyn Schiff

      Thanks Ben!! I think the book is great by the way!

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  • http://www.facebook.com/marcympls Marcy Twete

    Love this SO MUCH that I posted about it on my own site today. Check it out at Career Girl Network – http://careergirlnetwork.com/why-its-time-to-change-the-way-we-talk-about-job-hopping/. I recently left my corporate job to pursue solopreneurship, and I love the idea of calling it a “professional pivot” – so awesome, thank you!

  • http://twitter.com/kevinbruce kevinbruce

    Great article, Jaclyn! I’ve made some major pivots in my career, some due to economic downturns, some to the “got to move out to move up” situation prevalent in so many companies nowadays. Today’s workforce is as fluid as our society is. In the 80′s, when companies started to replace the “lifetime employee grooming” with “people are capital” (that you can acquire and remove at will), the workforce responded with “what’s good for the goose is good for the gander!”

    In the dot com era, companies started to value employees as partners (complete with equity and parachutes), but then that all exploded with the dot bomb.

    Today it’s mixed, with some companies that do and some that don’t value their employees as assets. Some employees that want security and some that thrive on change and can’t sit still. Also, there’s a heck of a lot more employees that are striking off on their own as freelancers or business owners.

    Nope- “job hoppers” is as archaic a term as “pensions!” Whatever today’s workforce is, you can’t say it’s not exciting (for both good and bad reasons)!

    • http://www.jaclynschiff.com Jaclyn Schiff

      Great perspective. The workforce today is definitely exciting with all the possibilities you mentioned! I think that’s part of what makes pivoting really necessary — there’s so much out there, how do you know what works best for you?!

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  • Maya_Lon21

    @Kevin bruce – made several really good points, it takes some time to find a company that puts value on their employees

  • Anonymous

    The one thing that really bothers me about HR is how stuck they seem to be in the 60s and 70s and basically when HR was first becoming a profession! All the professional updates and research I’ve seen does not seem to pullout the bulk out of this dinosaur mentality!

    According to one survey I came across, most CEOs calculated the break even of a new hire as around 6 months. Unless the hire was under a 6 month contract, anything less should be suspect. 2 to 3 years is fine, more and I’d suspect something is wrong with you since you can’t move up or move out to move up!

    If I had hiring decision, I’ll take the “job hopper” over someone pigeon holed in their narrow experience any day!

    Broader experience, broader culture exposure and adaptable.

  • Bruce

    “The average American changes jobs once every three years; those under the age of 30 change jobs once a year,”
    How is this different for new people? In the handful of people I’ve talked to and Linkedin profiles I’ve read, there’s a difference between time in your first job after college/university and time in subsequent jobs. What’s the ideal time to stay in your first post-college job?

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