Know the 5-Year Job Itch? You Can Fight It

The five-year itch at the workplace—it’s real. Hitting the half-decade mark at the same job seems to be an inflection point, a milestone that causes so many of us to reflect about what we’ve accomplished, whether we’re truly appreciated, how we can get ahead… or if there’s a reason to stay.

A report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics confirms these feelings. Taking slices of data over the last 32 years, the BLS has shown the median tenure with a current employer has remained pretty much the same—roughly five years, even during four recessions, when you’d expect the length of tenure to rise. That number has been particularly consistent among people 25 years and older: five years of tenure in 1983, compared with five and a half in 2014.

Dig a little deeper into another BLS report and that number pops with astonishing regularity among a single age group over the last decade: men and women 35-45 years old—aka Gen Xers.

Pity that MTV generation, born between 1966 and 1981. The largest population among the workforce (44 percent), they’re squeezed between aging baby boomers, who are running companies and hanging around long past retirement age, and millennials, the digitally savvy and overconfident sprouts who seem to be getting all the attention at work (and in the media).

Gen Xers can easily get lost in the shuffle, yet they’re well-educated, imaginative and ambitious as a group, with plenty of career gas left in their tanks. If you want them to hang around longer than five years as motivated, engaged and productive contributors, what can you do to keep them from bolting?

First, recognize that careers have stages, each appropriate to a length of tenure. At the O.C. Tanner Institute, we generated a survey of thousands of people across the country who had been at their jobs between 1 and 30 years. We came up with a psychological snapshot that showed, unsurprisingly, that people had different needs and kinds of engagement depending on how long they had been at the same company. Here’s how those career stages broke out:

Year 1: Learning
You’re still a “sponge,” soaking it all up but starting to add value.

Year 3: Fitting In
You’re in the groove, focused on growing and curious about what might be ahead.

Year 5: Expertise
You’ve sacrificed a lot to become an authority, but you wonder, What’s next? and Should I start somewhere else?

Year 10: Belonging
Your co-workers are part of your extended family; you’re committed to the company’s goals as if they were your own.

Year 15: Invested
You see lifelong value from your partnership with the company, with a personal sense of ownership, watching for waste, looking to make improvements.

Year 20: Veteran
You’ve seen a lot of change in your own life and that of the company; you collaborate, lead and inspire others.

Year 25: Triumph
This is a time for celebrating past victories and passing along what you know to the next generation; you still have a lot to contribute.

Year 30: Mentor
Your sense of gratitude and indebtedness encourages you to teach others, go out with a bang and leave a legacy as you prepare to retire.

Grasping what these milestones mean for employees, and coming up with ways of enriching them, might encourage Gen Xers to stay longer. Consider the three stages appropriate to this generation—Belonging, Veteran and Mentor:

1. Belonging

How do you help Gen Xers reach that 10-year milestone? Rally cries and powerful mission statements alone don’t cut it anymore. Neither do ambitious goals for profit growth or stock price targets. Gen Xers whom I know (including myself) believe there’s far more to life than aggressive quarterly performance.

Try evangelizing employee experience, just as you do corporate identity and new products. At a recent conference I attended, Clif Bar CEO and co-founder Gary Erickson said he conducts weekly all-staff meetings at headquarters in Emeryville, California, to discuss company-wide initiatives, but also to let folks talk about causes that interest them. If you’re running a dog-walk fundraiser, or planning a weekend’s work for Habitat for Humanity or starting an organic garden, you can have 15 minutes to talk about the program and ask for volunteers. The idea is to create small communities of like-minded people within the broader community of the organization.

Creating multiple identities under the corporate umbrella gives Gen Xers several binding sites, enriching the sense of belonging.

2. Veterans

I recently crossed my 20th anniversary at O.C. Tanner, and it feels like a big chunk of my life. I’ve accomplished a lot and have a deep appreciation for what it takes to make the company successful. Instead of looking at the org chart, as I once did to figure out who can help me get things done, I trade on relationships I’ve built over the years to help find the experts I need. Having survived many of the human and political struggles that all companies go through, as well as the ups and downs of the economy, I have plenty of war stories to impart. I know how long it takes to turn the ship or take a project from inspiration to execution.

So, how do you keep veterans like me committed to the company? Include us in important projects and initiatives—even if you don’t put us in charge of the group. Vets can leverage their experience and expertise to help guide the work at hand. Our leadership skills and perspective can help the team cross the finish line.

Once a month at my company, we do an on-boarding breakfast with people who have recently joined the company. We honor the folks who’ve been here a while, but rather than holding a formal ceremony, we share stories of veterans—how they wrestled with challenges, came back from failure, got through tough times with industry downturns or engagements with competitors. It’s a little like a class reunion, and the younger groups love those stories—just as we enjoyed hearing older relatives talk to us as kids about the Dust Bowl, the Great Depression or World War II.

3. Mentors

Maybe it’s the pharaoh phenomenon: the need to build something lasting, if not magnificent, so nobody will forget you once you’re gone. Whatever their motives, people who’ve reached a 30-year anniversary often feel driven to create a legacy, to pass along some of the big lessons of life at work, helping younger colleagues learn to avoid inefficiencies and landmines or how to get the most out of their careers.

I’ve seen a lot of intergenerational talk over lunch breaks or in executives’ offices. They’re not just discussing work-related issues but also personal issues like childrearing or relationships.

Changing up traditional mentorships in the workplace with reverse-mentoring puts a little more of the onus on millennials to teach Gen Xers and boomers something about, say, the cloud or mobile computing. It’s a practice first kicked off by GE’s Jack Welch 15 years ago.

There are also less formal ways to keep mentors interested. One is to involve them in the recruiting and interviewing of new hires. They generally know the required skill sets as well as anyone at the company and can help acculturate promising candidates.

Another is to invite mentors to hold brown-bag lunches with different divisions in the company, leading discussions about new projects and adding some historical context. Finally, some mentors might be encouraged to blog for the company website. This is just one way to offer stories and parables about work.

Do you know the 7 warning signs of an unhappy employee? Know what red flags to watch for—before they bolt. 

+ posts

David Sturt is an executive vice president of the O.C. Tanner Institute and author of The New York Times best-selling book Great Work: How to Make a Difference People Love. His career began in market research, where he studied and analyzed the effects of people being recognized for great work. In the two decades since, he has researched and developed several multimillion-dollar services that engage employees, inspire above and beyond contribution, and reward outstanding results in organizations around the world.

Leave a Comment