A client called me last week to talk about Millennials and turnover. Turnover has tripled over where it was a decade ago for their entry-level management positions, which are typically held by people under 35. They’re trying to figure out how to stop the bleeding.

One of the first questions we discussed was, “Is it just this generation?”

This statistic captures the current consensus about Millennials and suggests that the answer is a resounding YES:

91% of Millennials expect to stay in a job for less than 3 years.


This statistic has been interpreted as suggesting that Millennials are a generation particularly prone to job-hopping. But how accurate is that interpretation?

For comparison, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that in 2014 the median job tenure for all workers was 4.6 years. Comparing Millennials to the entire workforce is certainly an apples to oranges comparison.

  • Apples: If Millennials are 18-34 years old, it’s safe to say that 25% of them (the 18-22 year olds) are at the VERY beginning of their careers.
  • Oranges: The median of all workers includes workers who have been in the workforce much longer than Millennials have (and so are more likely to have found their professional sweet spot).

Given the nature of the comparison, the difference between Millennials’ expectations and what most workers actually do seems a little less dramatic…and almost anti-climactic.

What happens if you do a more apples to apples comparison of Millennials to a previous generation? The graph below, from the President’s Council of Economic Advisers is derived from census data on job tenure for Millennials vs. Generation X workers when they were the same age (18-30 years). These data suggest that Millennials aren’t very different from X-ers when it comes to job tenure, and if they are different, Millennials are actually staying in their jobs longer than the previous generation did when they were the same age.

Source: page 29, https://www.whitehouse.gov/sites/default/files/docs/millennials_report.pdf

Here’s a deeper dive on retention data. The 2014 Bureau of Labor Statistics report includes data back to 2004. Here, the census data are sliced a little differently on age than they were for the Council of Economic Advisers report, but they tell the same basic story. (I’ve included only total data. Click through to the report if you’re interested in the gender breakdown.)

These data show that the average tenure for 20-24 year olds (1.3 years) was exactly the same in 2004 vs. 2014. For 25-34 year olds, tenured was actually just a little longer in 2014 (3.0 years) vs. 2004 (2.9 years).

Conclusion: Millennials aren’t leaving their jobs any faster than people their age were a decade ago.

What happens if we look farther back at the Bureau of Labor Statistics data on tenure? The oldest data archived on the BLS site are from 1983 (here’s a link to that report). People who were 20-35 years old in 1983 are Baby Boomers. What do the data tell us about Baby Boomers vs. Millennials?

These data put the median tenure for 20-24 year olds in 1983 (Boomers) at 1.5 years compared to the 2014 median of 1.3 years for Millennials. That difference may be statistically significant because sample sizes are so large, but a couple of months’ difference isn’t very significant from a practical standpoint. For 25-34 year olds there is no difference. Median tenure in 1983 and 2014 are both 3.0 years for 25-34 year olds.

Conclusion: Millennials aren’t leaving their jobs any faster than Baby Boomers were at their age.

Surprised? These historical data suggest that Millennials are staying in jobs for about the same amount of time as their same-age predecessors did over the past few decades.

If we label Millennials as job hoppers, then we must say that the generations that came before them were job hoppers too. Is that what we really mean?

Here’s a graphical representation of what’s really (empirically verifiably) going on with retention in Millennials vs. Baby Boomers … nothing.

This empirical examination of the data on tenure supports a general principle I/O Psychologists are beginning to discuss and examine seriously: that many of the generational differences in the workforce posited by the mainstream media and popular press are, in fact, myths. (Costanza and Finkelstein, 2015)

When it comes to retention, it’s not just this generation!

What other myths about Millennials (and other generations) are we swallowing whole?

I’m hoping that this lens on tenure in Millennials might shift the focus of leaders, managers and HR professionals as they consider how to best manage the youngest members of the workforce:

  • Instead of worrying that the sky is falling on retention, what can we do to make the most of the time we have with Millennials in order to optimize their performance and maximize their engagement? (more on that question here)
  • We should be looking at our business practices and our human capital strategies. If we’re seeing turnover rise in roles that are traditionally held by people who are 20-34, it’s not them. It’s us.
  • Are Millennials really so different from the rest of our workforce that the strategies we employ to optimize their performance and maximize their engagement and retention won’t have similar effects on their older and more experienced colleagues?

Questions for you:

  • Does this shift your thinking on Millennials?
  • What are you and your organization doing to attract, develop and retain Millennials?
  • And how different should those efforts be from what you do for all your employees?

I look forward to continuing the conversation with you. Please share your comments and questions!

This is the first in a series of three blog posts on Millennials...read the other blog posts here:

What Millennials Want: Relational, Experiential Opportunities for Growth
Coaching Strategies for Millennials

Kim Turnage, Ph.D. works as a Senior Leadership Consultant for Talent Plus, helping leaders select the best people, make the right investments in talent development, and create talent-based succession plans that will ensure the future of their organizations.

Kim writes regular posts on leadership and everything that goes along with it. Find them all here.

Talking Talent,

Kim Turnage
Senior Leadership Consultant
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