For better or worse, so-called "job hopping" is commonplace these days. Workers are moving from one role to the next more rapidly than in the past, by one measure at a rate of roughly every two to three years. Some see that (probably groundlessly) as a quintessentially millennial habit.
Others chalk it up to the influence of the gig economy on the overall workforce, or to a mind-set that may have sunk in after the 2008 financial crisis, where navigating career instability became the new normal. And plenty of experts say job hopping still holds more risks than advantages.
But what if changing jobs continuously is at least as much about human psychology as it is about the zeitgeist or state of the workforce? To what extent do people just need some variety—and the single-company-career model of past decades was more an exception, psychologically speaking, than a rule?
Before trying to answer that question, it's worth recognizing that there always are (and have always been) lots of individual differences in people’s motivations to change jobs.
First, work by the researcher Tory Higgins and his colleagues has shown that people differ in their tendency to focus on the potential positives or negatives in life. Those who generally focus on the good stuff that can happen (optimists) will see the opportunities in new careers and embrace the challenge of going after them. People who generally focus on the problems that can arise in life tend to seek safety and security—they're more likely to stay put and settle into the jobs they have.
Second, one of the core personality traits psychologists have identified is "openness to experiences"—simply put, how people react to new things. If you're very open to new experiences, you'll often enjoy change. If you don't, you won't—change will stress you out.
This range of temperaments—between optimists and pessimists, and those who embrace change and those who resist it—is pretty constant. It isn't much impacted by vagaries in the economy or any other factor, and yet it still drives people's career decisions just as much as the material pressures of the moment might. But it's something that's easy to lose sight of amid talk of the "trend" of job hopping.
Most people enjoy learning new things. When you first start learning, you get better quickly. When I was in my mid-30s, I took up the saxophone. In the first three months, I went from not being able to get a sound out of the instrument to playing recognizable songs with a sound that was recognizably a sax. After 15 years of playing, it's harder to gauge my improvement now.
The idea that you learn quickly at the beginning and your progress slows later on is what we call the learning curve, and it's real. It's also motivating at first; it feels great to know that your skills are growing so fast that you can see a difference from week to week. It can be much more frustrating to be stuck in a rut later on, feeling like you're making incremental gains at best.
One thing that job switching provides is lots of opportunities to pull yourself up the steep part of the learning curve. It can actually be addicting to continually place yourself in situations that force you to rise to new challenges. You might like that experience so much that you find yourself job hopping over and over again as a result.
Education researchers have found that some students focus on performance, while others focus on mastery. A "performance orientation" reflects the desire to achieve some outcome. A "mastery orientation" refers to the motivation to learn and understand something. One is about results; the other, knowledge.
These two types of motivation follow us into the workplace. People who are performance-oriented enjoy making specific contributions. They create "bucket lists" of things they'd like to accomplish. Switching jobs provides lots of opportunities to tick items off the bucket list.
People with more of a mastery orientation tend to change jobs for different reasons—and may be less liable to job hop as a result. It can take years working in a particular area to become an expert, and this type of person really values that; career changes can be a big distraction.
Even if you stay in the same field or build upon your previous role, changing jobs unavoidably shifts your focus away from your domain of expertise, even if just for a while. You have to get used to a new corporate culture. You have to build relationships with new colleagues. That takes time. And while you're integrating yourself into a new organization, you aren't as focused on continuing to deepen your knowledge. So you're less likely to put yourself into situations that lead you to do that.
There's a third motivation for job hopping that speaks to basic psychological needs, too. It's hard for people to stay in a job just for the sake of advancing an organization's success. Many people in the workforce have seen their parents and older colleagues reach the end of their careers only to wonder what the sustained effort added up to. So they make career changes to stay engaged, clear space for the personal lives, and pursue side projects and passions outside of work.
Nor is this just a millennial thing, though it's often framed that way. Studies of happiness in the workplace suggest that people are most engaged by their work when they see what they're doing as a calling—connected to some greater purpose that's bigger than a paycheck.
Finding this sense of purpose in your work doesn't depend on the types of tasks it asks you to do. It relates to the contribution you see those tasks making to a larger set of goals. When you can see that connection at work, you're more likely to stay put—because the job change won't necessarily help you sustain the underlying mission that motivates your career.
But for many people in today’s workplace, the job is just a job—so they leave it. And that's only human.