The Wall Street Journal noted Tuesday that employee disloyalty is back—or that it never went away. Workers are aggressively playing potential employers off each other, they’re looking for another job even after accepting offers, and they’re quitting on a dime. I was sort of surprised by this at first, given the less-than-booming economy, but upon reflection there are several reasons that it makes perfect sense. The most important, I think, is that in the last 15 years or so we’ve all learned how great it is to quit.
If my high-school coaches were correct, this is a terrible thing to say—maybe even un-American. Quitters, they used to tell me, never win. My counterargument at the time was that if not quitting meant I would end up being a high-school coach, well, I would take my chances as a quitter. Not surprisingly, this argument didn’t go very far (since at the time, “Give me 50, Walker,” pretty much ended all debate).
The bosses in the Journal story tend to come down on the coach side of the argument, expressing disappointment over this shabbily disloyal behavior. The piece traces the roots of the problem back to the mid-1980s, when Organization America purged employees by the thousands in brutal waves of downsizing. By the late 1990s the tables had turned. A hot job market gave the advantage to prospective employees, who could opportunity-hop without any burden of loyalty at all—a time nicely captured in thisFortune story from that period by my former colleague Nina Munk. This somewhat illusory era was followed by a short period of everyone clinging frantically to whatever work they could get, as the boom unraveled. But it seems that the self-centered work force is here to stay. I’m not surprised: This is a reality that was created by employers, so they’re the ones who ought to learn to adjust to the fact that the loyalty equation has changed for good.
When I entered the work force in 1990, I knew that I had zero chance of following my father’s example of staying with the same firm forever—the economy stank, and I’d already seen many examples of corporate ruthlessness toward dedicated servants, and I pretty much knew I was on my own. And I’m proud to say I’ve had the courage of my youthful convictions: I’ve been a dedicated quitter. My first “real” job was as a reporter for a small newspaper in Central Texas, and I quit in a matter of months to take another gig in Dallas. I lasted a year before quitting to move to New York. In eight years there, I quit my job no fewer than eight times. I’ve quit for every reason you can think of, when the economy was booming and when everyone was predicting a disastrous slump. At my last job, during one of those interview processes that involves meeting half-a-dozen muckety-mucks who you’ll never see again, one looked at my résumé and said, “What, do you have ADD?” He was kidding; we shared a laugh and I got the job. A year later, I quit.
So, what’s so great about quitting? Well, for starters, it’s fun, it’s easy, it’s liberating, and anyone can do it. It’s like exfoliation. (The worst part of being a free-lancer, actually, is that you can’t really quit. You can stop and take a straight job, but that’s different.) Quitting also saves the quitter from institutional myopia. People who have worked for the same company forever tend to have a rather unrealistically inflated view of that company’s place in the world. The experienced quitter knows that 1) almost every firm thinks that it’s uniquely fantastic; and 2) there are brilliant people at the most obscure organizations, and total chumps at the most prestigious ones.
Finally, quitting keeps you in touch with the reality of the marketplace. Perhaps you’ve come across a person in your work life who hates his job but knows no one will ever hire him for the same money. So he clings to the gig because he “can’t afford” to quit. If he’d quit sooner, he could have avoided this problem. And it is a problem, because what happens to such people eventually is that they get fired. I’ve certainly had that happen a few times.
So, are there any downsides to quitting at all? Sure. Fear is the big one. The reality of the marketplace is often depressing. Another major concern is that you’ll be saying goodbye to a boss who really did have your interests at heart and would have gone to great lengths to advance your career. Perhaps you work for such a person right now. But even if you do, I wouldn’t get too comfortable: If she’s really that great, she’s probably about to quit.