Hey, 20-somethings: Quit your job!

Economists want you to quit your job.

Economists want more Americans to quit their jobs.

That's because more voluntary quitting by people who have jobs — whether it be to get a better, higher-paying job, or to go back to school for additional skills or credentials — is a sure sign the job market is getting stronger and workers’ confidence is on the mend.

The rate of voluntary quitting — called the ‘quits rate’ by the Bureau of Labor Statistics — has been rising in fits and starts ever since bottoming out after the recession ended in early 2010. But the rate (at 1.8 percent in March 2014), is still approximately 20 percent below its level before the recession hit, says labor economist Heidi Shierholz at the Economic Policy Institute.

“There is a big backlog of people who would probably like to quit their jobs,” says Shierholz. “Someone who got their job before the recession in 2007 — over the last seven years they might have really benefited from changing jobs, but instead they’ve been locked in.”

The problem of ‘failure to quit’ is especially acute for younger workers in this economy, says Shierholz. “Mobility — the ability to move jobs — is really important for people who are at the beginning of their careers,” says Shierholz. “They’re still trying to figure out what their interests are, what their skills are, where they want to live.”

Three young people who have taken this plunge were milling around on a recent Sunday in Portland after an electronic dance party.

“I wasn’t planning on staying a paralegal forever — work felt like a bit of a grind,” said Will Petillo, 28. He quit recently, after working at an intellectual property lawfirm, to pursue post-graduate study in electrical engineering.

“I was working at a bakery,” said Rachel Maddox, 27. “And every time I went to the bakery my entire insides were on fire and I didn’t want to be there. I’ve been ready to get back into my own business and I just quit.” She’s now launching a life-coaching business.

Jesse Allen just quit the last of a series of manufacturing jobs he’s had over the past few years. “I was manufacturing saw chain,” he said. “The air inside the factory was nasty, there were failures from OSHA — I decided I’m just giving up on manufacturing altogether.” He wants to try to support himself by teaching dance classes.

These kinds of life and career choices are exactly what economists are hoping young people will make more often as the economy improves. More to the point, they're hoping that this generation will get bored in lower-skilled, less-interesting jobs, and try something new. 

Nedah Zamani, 26, is now on that path. She graduated from Cornell College, a small liberal arts college in Iowa, in 2010. A speaker at her commencement sent a chill through the graduates, says Zamani: “A third of us were going to move home and live with our parents, and that was very scary.”

Zamani had done the perfect internship during college at a nonprofit arts organization in Southern California. But by the time she graduated, there was a hiring freeze at the organization due to budget cuts, and her promised job evaporated. Eventually, she ended up back at her alma mater working in the admissions office.

Now, she’s packing up and about to start an MBA program in arts management at the University of Southern California. She’s saved to pay for school, and will also incur some debt to complete the degree.

“Even though it’s a certain level of unknown,” said Zamani, “I’m able to see it as a return on investment, in a way that I don’t know that I could have a couple of years ago.” Zamani said the improving economy gave her the confidence to go back to school to develop her career. “I think I will be better equipped for the market, and the market will be better equipped for me.”

There's still a lot of hesitation among middle-aged workers, though, to take career and income risks like these young people are taking. Fear of unemployment, of downward mobility, of only finding short-term employment after leaving a steady job — all of these drive people to stay in jobs longer than might be good for them, says Dan Finnigan, CEO of online recruiting site Jobvite.

“The last recession actually frightened the workforce,” says Finnigan. “You’re not going to take the chance of moving your whole family for a new job unless you believe it’s a job that’s going to stick. And most companies now have a difficult time convincing prospective employees that they’re going to be able to stick with them for a long career.”

Still, career counselors will say, it’s ever-more difficult to advance one’s career — to get a higher salary or more job responsibilities — without moving from one employer to another. That opportunity for advancement is what employees have sacrificed over the past decade. That is, if they’ve stuck with jobs they don’t like or that don’t allow for upward mobility within the organization. 

“Don't be afraid to go in and take a job that is lower level and less pay the what you have, in order to get into that organization, to learn the field, to network and move up,” advises Jean Erickson Walker, an executive coach in Portland, Oregon. “We didn't say that before. Years ago we said you want to stay in one company and work your way up. Now that's not very appealing. Most employers don't want someone who has been in one company for more than ten years.”

About the author

Mitchell Hartman is the senior reporter for Marketplace’s Entrepreneurship Desk and also covers employment.

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