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There was a time when bosses demanded loyalty. In return they’d give you a job for life – or at least a sizable chunk of it, along with steady progress through the ranks and pay rises.

At some point the social contract broke down. Employers no longer expect you to stay for ever. Or at least most don’t. If they want to keep your skills, talent and enthusiasm they’ll offer you equity, options or another incentive.

So you’re off then?

From your point of view, moving on should not just be about earning better money. You should also build your curriculum vitae. You must balance the variety of skills and breadth of acquired experience against the need to show stability.

Your next employer may not care if you have only been in your current job for 10 months, but later employers will.

It’s important that you don’t appear to be a butterfly flitting casually from job to job. On the other hand, smart recruiters recognise five years at a single employer might not mean five years of experience, but the same year of experience repeated five times. It might also show an unambitious nature or even a lack of gumption.

No easy answers

There are no hard and fast rules. Details differ from discipline to discipline and from region to region, but after talking to recruiters and people who successfully manage their careers the following seems to be about the right recipe for today’s job market:

  • It’s OK to have a new job roughly every year up until around your 30th birthday.
    Assuming you graduate at 22, that means you can safely fit in seven employers before hitting your 30s. Less than three employers in this time means you probably haven’t learnt enough. Higher degrees, periods of self-employment and bar-keeping in London each count as a single employer.
  • When you hit 30, you need to slow down. Individual jobs should last between 18 months and three years with an average of over two years.
    Aim for four CV items between your 30th and 40th birthdays. Don’t worry if one lasts less than 18 months—but make sure you have a good explanation if there is more than one short-term job. Higher degrees and periods of self-employment are still cool. Indulgent goofing-off (i.e. bar-keeping in London) looks a bit flaky, but accomplishing something (writing a book, sailing single-handed around the world or climbing Everest) is OK.
  • Above 40 it’s OK to stay a little longer with employers, but not too long and certainly not if you stay in the same role. The lower limit of 18 months still applies but you should be looking to clock up some extended periods of more than four or five years with a single employer.

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