On Longevity

Old ShoesLast night I attended my organisation’s Annual General Meeting.

Apart from the usual business (approving minutes, electing Board members etc.) this meeting is also the time when employee service awards are given out.

People received awards for 5, 10, 15, 20, 25 and 35 years of service. 35 years!!!! The lady who received her 35 year award started work as a student and has never left. She has fulfilled different roles and responsibilities, and the organisation has grown over time, but essentially she grew up with our organisation. She isn’t the only story like this. In some cases, this is the only work environment people have experienced.

This, to me, is amazing. The only thing I have done consistently for more than 10 years (other than the usual, you know, breathing and stuff) is to be married.

I’ve never stayed at a job that long, I’ve never lived in a house (or even one city) that long, heck, I only need one hand to count the number of friends I see regularly who I’ve known that long!

What is wrong with me???

This is not the first time I’ve wondered about this. Before I left my last job I agonized for weeks over whether it was the right thing to do after 4 years. And maybe it wasn’t. BUT I was working crazy hours, was stressed and miserable and no longer really believed that the work I was doing to support the institution was consistent with my values. I am sure though that I can’t be the only person who has faced those circumstances, and many people, I am sure, would hang in there for much longer than I, in the hopes things would change.

So I decided to do a bit of research and come up with a set of good reasons why someone should stay in their job for years and years, and reasons that would justify my flaky employment history. I expected to come out of this feeling like I was an odd ball, after all, I come from a family of loyal time-served employees (my Dad worked for the same company for more than 30 years and my sister has only ever worked for two companies over the course of her professional life). In fact I found the things I read validated my own behaviour.

The positive arguments for longevity seem to me to be good for the employer and not necessarily for the employee (unless they are somewhere that offers steady increases in responsibility and this is reflected in their salary). Employers who value longevity see the advantages of low turnover (hiring and training are expensive and time consuming) and a more “stable” culture. I put “stable” in quotation marks deliberately. In some cases I honestly think “stable” can become “stagnant” and if there are too many people with endless years of service, change gets harder and harder to implement.

What I was surprised to discover was that the definition of “longevity” is not at all “long” and that attitudes that once might have valued years and years of service, have changed. Longevity, in many articles I read, refers to over 2 years of service. Currently a North American worker stays an average 4.6 years at each job before moving on. In fact a new term for “job hopping” has been developed to name the under 25 year old tendency to move jobs every couple of years. It is now known as “Professional Pivoting”.

Another article I read said that you MUST change jobs every 3-5 years in order to learn and grow and move up in your career. Apparently the concept of loyalty is demonstrated through loyalty to an idea, a project or a group of people, and not by showing up day after day to do the same thing for the same company. I concur with this sentiment (I am, of course, a bit biased). At both the job I am in now, and the one I was in before, I bust my ass to make changes and leave the organization in a better place then when I joined. The reality of both organizations when I joined was that I replaced very long term employees (almost 20 years in both cases). Because of this there had been 20 years of some things being done amazingly well and some things were not done well at all. We all have our strengths and weaknesses, and, over 20 years these become ingrained in to culture and practice, this is not necessarily always for the best. There again, I am taking the organisation’s perspective.

From the employee’s perspective, I completely understand that stability and familiarity are important to people at certain points in their lives. I get that if you are bringing up small children, or going through some personal crisis in your own life, then change in other aspects of your life is not welcome. However these things (one would hope) don’t last forever.

However, I also think that staying too long in one place makes you afraid of taking risks, moving on, becoming adaptable to new circumstances and working styles, and possibly learning new skills. One of the themes that has come up in conversations with individuals who have worked for very long periods of time at the same place, is that they don’t know what else they would do. Surely the point of dedicating all that time and hard work to an organization should allow, at the very least, for you to build a skill set that you could leverage if you ever wanted to change direction? Or, that if an individual feels they have stagnated, isn’t it their responsibility to gain new knowledge and skills for themselves?

I think this explains my “Professional Pivoting”. To use a cliche, I give 110% wherever I work, and I expect, as well as a paycheck, to be given the opportunity to take on new things and continuously learn. However if I hit a wall and I cannot see a way to grow (and by that I mean is skills not necessarily in dollars), and I’m getting no support, then it is time to move on with no regrets.

This is apparently a very Gen X/ Gen Y/Millennial way of looking at the world. They will be loyal to an organization, however they expect that the organization demonstrates some loyalty to them in the form of providing opportunities to learn and grow. As a ‘Gen X’r’ myself, this doesn’t make me all that different to my peers. Just different to a lot of the people I work with! But then again that’s probably why I was hired. So maybe I should just stop fretting and get on with the job at hand.

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