Smarter Working

The Nomad Economy

The number of jobs you may have in your lifetime will likely be double that of a generation ago. How workers and companies should deal with this new reality.

These days, you can find Mary Anne Fusco showing luxury condominiums to aspiring buyers up and down Manhattan. She’s quite good at it, too, having brokered more than $500 million worth of sales.

She’s so successful at it you’d think Fusco has been hawking New York real estate her whole life. But this is actually her fifth different career. Among other roles, she has overseen 13 Jenny Craig weight-loss franchises across Atlanta; owned and managed a construction and renovation company; sold women’s sportswear; and taught literature at St. John’s University in New York City. “Today, careers are so much different than what they used to be,” says Fusco.

The Great Job Switch

Decades ago, the “ideal” career was one where you worked at one company, taking on additional responsibilities as you got older and wiser. Switching jobs multiple times was, according to the stereotype, something only people without a formal education did. Switching careers was even worse, a sign that you couldn’t commit or failed so miserably at your first career that you couldn’t be hired to do it again. 

Workers are switching their roles nearly 50% faster than they swap their cars.

That stereotype was prevalent, even if the actuality of one-career-for-life never really was. But now workers are switching their roles nearly 50% faster than they swap their cars. The average job tenure in the United States has dropped to 4.2 years, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), down from 4.6 years just five years ago. This isn’t the so-called gig economy, where workers pick up projects on a freelance basis or use their cars for ride sharing. These are people like Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, a computer science grad who had been a software coder in the telecom industry, a product manager for an investment bank, and a hedge fund analyst before settling on the career he wanted.

Call it the “nomad economy,” where an increasing number of highly skilled employees are broadening themselves by taking on new professional challenges every couple of years. “It has become increasingly uncommon for people to have lifetime or decade-plus tenures at companies,” says Dorie Clark, an adjunct professor at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business. “As a result, the entire economy is changing, and [changing] how workers need to operate.” 

Millennials, or those born between 1982 and 2000 and now the largest part of the US workforce, seem particularly disinterested in staying put. The average job tenure of people ages 25 to 34 is less than three years, BLS found. For those ages 55 to 64 it is three times that, at 10.1 years.

Part of that is sheer age, of course. Younger workers haven’t had as much time to find their calling, set roots, and settle into the right job. But experts say it’s also part of a larger cultural shift. While job-hopping once was a sign of a lack of commitment or worse, nowadays it’s almost as if the reverse is true.

“Hiring managers used to be very skeptical of job-hoppers,” says Jeanne Meister, founder of the New York City-based advisory firm Future Workplace. “Now the pendulum has swung to, ‘Why did you stay in one company or one job role for so long? Why did you not develop a breadth of skills and experiences?’

Finding Opportunity, the Nomadic Way

While there are plenty of opportunities in a robust economy with more than 7 million open jobs, workers have to make some changes of their own in order to take advantage of them. The idea of “climbing the corporate ladder” is rapidly falling away. In the nomad economy, workers have to make lateral, diagonal, and occasionally downward moves to get a role they want.

“It’s more like a jungle gym than a ladder,” says Meister. “Even full-time employees are operating like gig-economy workers. All the lines are blurring.”

To navigate the jungle gym, workers need to drop assumptions around pay. By staying in-house, workers can expect typical pay bumps of around 1 to 2%, after accounting for inflation. But changing companies or careers could change those dollar figures dramatically—both up and down. The good news is that any short-term hit to pay can be counteracted by picking up new skills. “If over three or six months you develop a valuable new skill that the marketplace rewards, like learning a new programming language that is in hot demand, then you can name your price,” Clark says.

Finally, remember that even though an array of opportunities may be available to you in the nomad economy, that doesn’t mean you should automatically take them. Make a move only if it is the right fit—though knowing what that “fit” is takes some research and self-awareness. Experts say that’s a point many people miss.

The notion of career nomads might carry with it a negative connotation of someone aimlessly drifting through life. Actually, the approach shouldn’t be aimless at all, suggests John Petzold, a Korn Ferry senior client partner and leader of the firm’s CXO Optimization practice. It should be deliberate and strategic, even if your path occasionally changes direction. After all, you are basically constructing a “career mosaic,” he says, and you need to do so thoughtfully.

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