Know the 5-Year Job Itch? You Can Fight It by Focusing on Career Stages

UPDATED: May 6, 2023
PUBLISHED: June 12, 2015
older man in the veteran career stage at work

While people are leaving their jobs for myriad reasons, one thing is consistent—people aren’t staying in the same job for too long. The median tenure of many employees is at or less than five years.

A 2022 report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics provides further details. According to the report, “the median number of years that wage and salary workers had been with their current employer was 4.1 years in January 2022, unchanged from the median in January 2020.” The median tenure for women was 3.8, lower than the median tenure of 4.3 years for men. Older workers (those “ages 55 to 64”) had a median of 9.8 years of employment, while workers “ages 25 to 34 years” had a median employment of 2.8 years. Additionally, employees in public-sector positions had a median employment rate of 6.8 years, as well as those in “management, professional and related occupations” at an even 5 years.

“Wage and salary workers” with at least 10 years of employment in the same position were primarily white (28%), male (28%) and older (“among workers ages 60 to 64, 53% had been employed for at least 10 years with their current employer in January 2022,” according to the report.)

But let’s focus on one specific generation—Generation Xers, born between 1965 and 1980. The second-largest population in the workforce, they’re squeezed between baby boomers and millennials.

Gen Xers can easily get lost in the shuffle. Yet they have plenty of career gas left in their tanks—although that’s not a choice for everyone. According to the “22nd Annual Transamerica Retirement Survey,” only 22% of Gen X is “very confident” that they will be able to retire comfortably and just 28% feel that they will have enough retirement savings. On the flipside, “38% expect to retire at age 70 or older or do not plan to retire, and 55% plan to work in retirement,” according to the survey results. 

Career stages based on years at one company

So if you want your Gen X employees to hang around longer than a few 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 and have cultivated a personal sense of ownership, watching for waste and 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.

Career stages to focus on to get employees to stay

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


How do you help Gen Xers reach that 10-year milestone? Help them find their purpose. Gen Xers whom I know (including myself) believe there’s far more to life than aggressive quarterly performance. Help them enjoy work by providing them with a reason to put effort into it.

Try evangelizing employee experience, just as you may evangelize corporate identity and product vision. At a conference I attended, Clif Bar co-founder Gary Erickson said he conducted weekly all-staff meetings at headquarters in Emeryville, California, to discuss company-wide initiatives, but also to let folks talk about causes that interested them. If you’re running a dog-walk fundraiser, 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.


As of 2015, I’d crossed my 20th anniversary at O.C. Tanner, and it felt like a big chunk of my life. I’d accomplished a lot and had a deep appreciation for what it took to make the company successful. Instead of looking at the organizational chart as I once did to figure out who can help me get things done, I began to trade on relationships I’d built over the years to help find the experts I needed. Having survived many human and political struggles in the workplace, 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 employees in the veteran career stage committed to the company? Include them in important projects and initiatives—even if you don’t put them in charge of the group. Veterans can leverage their experience and expertise to help guide the work at hand. Their leadership skills and perspective can help their team cross the finish line.

Once a month at my company, we did an onboarding breakfast with people who had recently joined the company. We honored the folks who’d been there a while, but rather than holding a formal ceremony, we shared stories of veterans—how they wrestled with challenges, came back from failure, got through tough times with industry downturns or engagements with competitors. It was a little like a class reunion, and the younger groups loved those stories—just as we enjoyed hearing older relatives talk to us about the Dust Bowl, the Great Depression or World War II when we were kids.


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, older employees may feel driven 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. While they may be discussing work-related issues, they’re also discussing personal issues like childrearing and 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 former General Electric CEO and chairman Jack Welch in 1999.

There are also less formal ways to keep employees in the mentor career stage 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 way 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, allowing them to offer stories and parables about work.

This article was updated April 2023. Photo by Prostock-studio/Shutterstock

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.