Notes on Job Hopping: Millennials and Their Ethics

For those that have been reading my more recent posts, which have typically been about broad-level software design or architecture concerns, I should probably issue a rant alert. This is somewhat of a meandering odyssey through the subject of the current prevalence of job hopping, particularly among the so-called millenial generation.

I thought I might take a whack today at this rather under-discussed subject in the field of software development. It’s not that I think the subject is particularly taboo, especially when discussed in blog comments or discussion forums as opposed to with one’s employer. I just think the more common approach to this subject is sort of quietly to pretend that it applies to people abstractly and not to anyone participating in a given conversation. This is the same way one might approach discussing the “moral degradation of society” — it’s a thing that happens in general, but few people look immediately around themselves and start assigning blame.

So what of job hopping and the job hopper? Is the practice as career threatening as ever it was, or is viewing it that way way a throwback to a rapidly dying age in the time of Developernomics and the developer as “king”? Is jumping around a good way to move up rapidly in title and pay, or is it living on borrowed time during an intense boom cycle in the demand for software development? Are we in a bubble whose bursting could leave the job hoppers among us as the people left standing without a chair when the music stops?

Before considering those questions, however, the ethics of job hopping bears some consideration. If society tends to view job hopping as an unethical practice, then the question of whether it’s a good idea or not becomes somewhat akin to the question of whether cheating on midterms in college is a good idea or not. If you do it and get away with it, the outcome is advantageous. Whether you can live with yourself or not is another matter. But is this a good comparison? Is job hopping similar to cheating?

To answer that question, I’d like to take a rather indirect route. I think it’s going to be necessary to take a brief foray into human history to see how we’ve arrived at the point that the so-called “millenials,” the generation of people age 35 and younger or thereabouts, are the motor that drives the software development world. I’ve seen the millenials called the “me generation,” but I’ve also seen that label applied to baby boomers as well. I’d venture a guess that pretty much every generation in human history has muttered angrily about the next generation in this fashion shortly after screaming at people to leave their collective lawn. “They’re all a bunch of self-involved, always on our lawn, narcissist, blah, blah, blah, ratcha-fratcha kids these days…”

It’s as uninventive as it is emblematic of sweeping generalizations, and if this sort of tiresome rhetoric were trotted out about a gender or racial demographic rather than an age-based one, the speaker would be roundly dismissed as a knuckle-dragging crank. But beneath the vacuous stereotyping and “us versus them” generational pissing matches lie some real and interesting shifting ethical trends and philosophies. And these are the key to understanding the fascinating and subtle shifts in both generational and general outlook toward employment.

Throughout most of human history, choice (about much of anything) was the province of the rich. Even in a relatively progressive society, such as ancient Greece, democracy was all well and good for land-owning, wealthy males. But everyone else was kind of out in the cold. People hunted and farmed, worked as soldiers and artisans, and did any number of things when station in life was largely determined by pragmatism, birth, and a lack of specialization of labor. And so it went pre-Industrial Revolution. Unless you were fortunate enough to be a noble or a man of wisdom, most of your life was pretty well set in place: childhood, apprenticeship/labor, marriage, parenthood, etc.

Even with the Industrial Revolution, things got different more than they got better for the proles. The cycle of “birth-labor-marriage-labor-parenthood-labor-death” just moved indoors. Serfs graduated to wage slaves, but it didn’t afford them a lot of leisure time or social mobility. As time marched onward, things improved in fits and starts from a labor-specialization perspective, but it wasn’t until a couple of world wars took place that the stars aligned for a free-will sea change.

Politics, technology, and and the unionized collective bargaining movement ushered in an interesting time of post-war boom and prosperity following World War II. A generation of people returned from wars, bought cars, moved to suburbs, and created a middle class free from the share-cropping-reminiscent, serf-like conditions that had reigned throughout human history. As they did all of this, they married young, had lots of children, settled down in a regular job and basically did as their parents had as a matter of tradition.

And why not? Cargo cult is what we do. Millions of people don’t currently eat shellfish and certain kinds of meat because doing so thousands of years ago killed people, and religious significance was ascribed to this phenomenon. A lot of our attitudes toward human sexuality were forged in the fires of Medieval outbreaks of syphilis. Even the “early to bed, early to rise” mantra and summer breaks for children so ingrained in our cultures are just vestigial throwbacks to years gone by when most people were farmers. We establish practices that are pragmatic. Then we keep doing them just because.

But the WWII veterans gave birth to a generation that came of age during the 1960s. And, as just about every generation does, this generation began superficially to question the traditions of the last generation while continuing generally to follow them. These baby boomers staged an impressive series of concerts and protests, affected real social policy changes, and then settled back into the comfortable and traditional arrangements known to all generations. But they did so with an important difference: they were the first generation forged in the fires of awareness of first-world, modern choice.

What I mean by that is that for the entirety of human history, people’s lots in life were relatively predetermined. Things like work, marriages, and having lots of children were practical necessities. This only stopped being true for the masses during the post-WWII boom. The “greatest generation” was the first generation that had choice, but the boomers were the first generation to figure out that they had choice. But figuring things like that out doesn’t really go smoothly because of the grip that tradition holds over our instinctive brains.

So the boomers had the luxury of choice and the knowledge of it, to an extent. But the old habits died hard. The expression of that choice was alive in the 1960s and then gradually ran out of steam in the 1970s. Boomers rejected the traditions and trappings of recorded human history, but then, by the 80s, they came around. By and large, they were monogamous parents working steady jobs, in spite of the fact that this arrangement was now purely one of comfort rather than necessity. They could job hop, stay single, and have no children if they chose, and they wouldn’t be adversely affected in the way a farmer would have in any time but modernity.

But even as they were settling down and seeing the light from a traditional perspective, a kind of disillusionment set in. Life is a lot harder in most ways when you don’t have choices about your fate, but strangely easier in others. Once you’re acing the bottom levels of Maslow’s Hierarchy, it becomes a lot easier to think, “if only I had dated more,” or, “I’m fifty and I’ve given half my life to this company.” And, in the modern age of choices, the boomers had the power to do something about it. And so they did.

In their personal lives, they called it quits and left their spouses. In the working world, they embarked on a quest of deregulation and upheaval. In the middle of the 20th century, the corporation had had replaced the small town as the tribal unit of collective identity, as described in The Organization Man. The concept of company loyalty and even existential consistency went out the window as mergers and acquisitions replaced blue chip stocks. The boomers became the “generation of divorce.” Grappling with tradition on one side and choice on the other, they tried to serve both masters and failed with gritty and often tragic consequences.

And so the millenials were the children of this experience. They watched their parents suffer through messy divorces in their personal lives and in their professional lives. Companies to which their parents had given their best years laid them off with a few months of severance and a pat on the butt. Or perhaps their parents were the ones doing the laying off — buying up companies, parceling them up and moving the pieces around. Whether personal or corporate, these divorces were sometimes no-fault, and sometimes all-fault. But they were all the product of heretofore unfamiliar amounts of personal choice and personal freedom. Never before in human history had so many people said, “You know what, I just figured out after 30 years that this isn’t working. So screw it, I’m out of here.”

So returning to the present, I find the notion that millenials harbor feelings of entitlement or narcissism to be preposterous on its face. Millenials don’t feel entitlement — they feel skepticism. They hesitate to commit, and when they do, they commit lightly and make contingency plans. They live with their parents longer rather than committing to the long-term obligation of a mortgage or even a lease. They wait until they’re older to marry and have children rather than wasting their time and affections on starter spouses and doomed relationships. And they job hop. They leave you before you can leave them, which, as we both know, you will sooner or later.

That generally doesn’t sit well with the older generation for the same reasons that the younger generation’s behavior never sits well with the older one. The older generation thinks, “man, I had to go through 20 years of misery before I figured out that I hated my job and your mother, so who are you to think you’re too good for that?” It was probably the same way their parents got angry at them for going to Woodstock instead of settling down and working on the General Motors assembly line right out of high school. Who were they to go out cavorting at concerts when their parents had already been raising a family after fighting in a war at their age?

So we can circle back around to the original questions by dismissing the “millenials are spoiled” canard as a reason to consider modern job hopping unethical. Generational stereotyping won’t cut it. Instead, one has to consider whether some kind of violation of an implied quid pro quo happens. Do job hoppers welch on their end of a bargain, leaving a company that would have stayed loyal to them were the tables turned? I think you’d be hard pressed to make that case. Individuals are capable of loyalty, but organizations are capable of only manufactured and empty bureaucratic loyalty, the logical outcome of which is the kind of tenure policies that organized labor outfits wield like cudgels to shield workers from their own incompetence. Organizations can only be forced into loyalty at metaphorical gunpoint.

Setting aside both the generational ad hominem and the notion that job hopping is somehow unfair to companies, I can only personally conclude that there is nothing unethical about it and that the consideration of whether or not to job hop is purely pragmatic. And really, what else could be concluded? I don’t think that much of anyone would make the case that leaving an organization to pursue a start-up or move across the country is unethical, so the difference between “job leaver” and “job hopper” becomes purely a grayscale matter of degrees.

With the ethics question in the books on my end, I’ll return next time around to discuss the practical ramifications for individuals, as well as the broader picture and what I think it means for organizations and the field of software development going forward. I’ll talk about the concept of free agency, developer cooperation arrangements, and other sort of free-wheeling speculation about the future.

  • Gareth Cottrell

    Good deconstruction of the cause of the behaviour, but I would challenge one of your assumptions, “Do job hoppers welch on their end of a bargain, leaving a company that would have stayed loyal to them were the tables turned? I think you’d be hard pressed to make that case” This may be true of some/all large corporations and some small outfits, but I’ve worked for small – medium companies (100 people) and I’ve seen extraordinary loyalty from companies e.g. working with alcoholics, getting into debt in order to keep people employed and so on. It may be a minority, but it’s out there if you want to take a risk on a smaller company and actually know your employer.

  • nportelli

    After reading the title and first paragraph I thought I was going to completely and angrily disagree with you. Turns out I agree. Job hopping is not bad. If you are at a place where you are not happy, why stay? If a company is unwilling to make it’s employee’s happy, why should anyone feel they need to be loyal to them. Granted not all companies are that way. The ones that are not probably do not have an issue with job hopping. Places that have a high turn over rate need to find out why, not blame the employee.

  • trellis

    Fascinating, thank you.

    Regarding the dissolution of company loyalty, you might be interested to read this. I think it helps explain why things have changed.

    The Dumbest Idea In The World: Maximizing Shareholder Value

  • Erik Dietrich

    In my experience, it has generally been individuals such as the company owner that drives these sorts of policies rather than any sort of culture of loyalty — but obviously YMMV

  • Erik Dietrich

    I think that a shift toward consideration of employee happiness is important, but also a shift toward giving sufficient growth opportunities. Too many people find it easier to get promoted by switching jobs than by staying put

  • Erik Dietrich

    Good read — thanks for the link. Glad you liked the post.

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