I recently interviewed for a job at a large financial institution. The firm was hiring in its Legal and Compliance department due to recent employee attrition in multiple areas.  I learned this fact by asking questions I typically ask of prospective employers:

“Is this a new position?  If not, why did the last person leave?”

You can peer through the looking glass of a firm’s culture by asking these questions.  If the position is new, it sounds like the firm is growing and willing to invest in expansion – positive indicators.  If the position is preexisting, it could be due to various reasons, not all of them negative.  Perhaps the previous person outgrew the role and was given a new opportunity internally (positive).  Or maybe that person wanted a new challenge and was not the right fit for the job (which does not necessarily mean the job is bad).  On the other hand, employee attrition could be a red flag for an insufferable culture, terrible boss, poor advancement and growth opportunities, and an overall miserable experience.  The answer I received to my question suggested the latter.

The hiring manager responded to me with the following:

“We are hiring for two positions actually.  Both are open due to employees recently moving to different roles, one in the firm and one externally.  They both had good opportunities and jumped at them.”

This response made me think that both people received opportunities they could not turn down. But it also made me pause, for it probably was not happenstance that two employees in the same organization and reporting line quit almost simultaneously. I had to ask:

“Is there a particular reason why both of them left?  Is it a coincidence that they each quit around the same time?”

I will never forget his response.

Honestly, I blame it on the millennial generation.  Their generation has no loyalty or allegiance to companies and the people who spend so much time trying to train them.  They see no problem packing up to leave for a measly salary increase, like some bullshit $10,000 or so.  What they fail to realize is that when the economy nosedives, and it always does periodically, they will not have enough human capital to fall back on.”

Wow, tell me how you really feel.  Here I am, a 30-year-old millennial, interviewing for a new job after only two and a half years spent at my current one.  He continued millennial bashing, but quickly ended by saying his comments did not apply to me because I am relatively early in my career.

So are most millennials, buddy.

I guess this 40-year-old guy forgot that most millennials graduated into the financial mess we inherited from his generation and the baby boomers.  The post-recession economy was unkind (to say the least) to all new entrants, forcing many of us to pursue underemployment as an alternative to unemployment.  Consequently, many of our starting salaries were below market, and that’s if you were lucky even to be in the market in the first place.  Many struggled mightily to find their first job, often having to settle for a role they simply tolerated, if not outright hated.

Remember, millennials were the first generation to go to college in mass.  A college diploma in the 21st century effectively transformed into the high school diploma of the past.  Even if you simply graduated with a liberal arts degree that taught you nothing practical for the real world, it was still viewed by society (particularly millennial parents) as better than nothing.  Everyone was expected to go to college.  High school admission counselors preached it, parents applied pressure, and society set the expectations.  With an unprecedented supply of prospective millennial-era students, colleges overextended their enrollments, even when the job market did not meet their supply.  The government only encouraged it further by providing easy access to money that many 18 and 22-year-olds did not anticipate would threaten to drown them for eternity.  These factors combined to create an atmosphere where those not pursuing higher education were labeled dumb or worthless, and where the student loan industry promised to change a generation forever.

Does this guy know what it feels like to owe over $200,000 in student loan debt?  The economy may have been dropped in the toilet by the baby boomers and generation X, but the cost of education never wavered.  The legal market, for example, was completely oversaturated, but law schools continued to churn out juris doctorates at exorbitant costs that only increased over time.  The government passed out unsubsidized loans (that you cannot even escape in bankruptcy) like hotcakes to any sucker with a social security number and an aspiration to improve their life with education.  Schools were incentivized to fudge their numbers or skirt ethical standards to entice students to apply, and many did, as higher education witnessed scores of admissions scandals in the recession’s aftermath (for a few examples, see Claremont McKenna, Villanova Law, Tulane Business, University of Texas).

Add to this student loan crisis and post-recession economy the fact that employers forever pegged your next salary against your current one, and you have a millennial generation set up for disaster.  Until cities like New York passed laws prohibiting employers from asking about current salaries, candidates were almost guaranteed to be underpaid in a subsequent job if they were underpaid in a current role.  No employer is incentivized to pay a $100,000 market value if they know a candidate currently makes $60,000.  These policies permitted employers to persistently underpay younger workers who had entered the market at its nadir.

The interviewer was partially right in one aspect, however: when the market falls into an abyss, human capital can go a long way.  But balance sheets matter too, along with your perception at work.  If you stay at one company for many years, it assumes you add significant value.  Everyone is a cost on a corporate balance sheet, even revenue generators who create positive cash flow.  Not everyone who stays at the same job adds value over time though.  They could simply exist and fall into the pejorative category of a “lifer.”  While it is not recommended to change jobs every year simply for the sake of change, workers also need to be cognizant of how they’re viewed if they stay.  If more opportunities and new challenges are not being thrown at you (along with more corresponding pay), you may have plateaued.  Eventually, your head may be the first on the chopping block to make way for the next generation.

There are many factors at play for why millennials change jobs at a faster pace than previous generations.  Oversimplifying the reasons by blaming their attitude and mentality without exploring the root causes is shortsighted and uninformed.  If companies are dedicated to training and development, but want the security of commitment, then they should move past the era of “at-will” employment and make employees sign contracts.  Otherwise, you cannot blame someone for leaving when a better opportunity comes along because there is nothing stopping the employer from doing the same.  In the age of a post-recession economy and in the midst of the student loan crisis, it is hard to blame any millennial for wanting to improve their career and bank account.

If you are interested in reading more articles on the Great Recession, see part 1 and part 2 of Wall Street Accountability.

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