Occupational Mobility and Personal Fulfillment Are National Resources

 Stephen Rosen & Celia Paul

Layoffs, quitting, getting fired, and changing career directions may not only turn out to be good for you by presenting opportunities to exercise different ‘muscles’, but they are also good for our economy. Saying “goodbye” to a job or career can reap unexpected benefits, become blessings in disguise, provide a new lease on life, and create genuinely productive outcomes. “You don’t have to break glass to get fresh air”, said Maurice Ravel; “you can open the window.”

On the other hand, New York Times economics reporter Louis Uchitelle argues in his book “The Disposable American”  that corporate America’s current addiction to layoffs wounds the U.S economy, is worse than unemployment of the 1930s, torments those who are let go, and has gone past the point of economic rationality.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Occupational mobility can be thought of as a process that helps ensure the smooth operation of the economy. In most cases, it allows individual workers to improve their job satisfaction through increased pay, status, and responsibility, or through better working conditions. At the same time, occupational mobility is a prime means for the economy to adjust to new demand conditions. Thus, relatively free movement of workers between occupations can be beneficial from the standpoint of both the individual and the economy.”

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics tracks the “occupational mobility rate” and the “job quit rate”. These are important indicators of a robust economy, job satisfaction, and career fulfillment—and are vital national assets.

In recent decades, typically some ten percent of all working individuals in the U.S change occupations (as defined by the U.S. B.L.S.) annually. For those over about 60 years of age, only some three or four percent change occupations. But for those in their twenties or thirties such as pre-professionals, graduate students or post-docs, the occupational mobility rate is about 12 percent. Even if it’s easier to change when you’re younger, all age groups do shift directions, switch jobs, and change careers—if there are good reasons to do so. Optimism about the economy or one’s own skills, ambition, a strong desire for advancement, eagerness to achieve job and career satisfaction…all of these drive occupational mobility and job quit rates. These motivations to change jobs and occupations are ‘what’s good about goodbye’ to unpleasant jobs and unsatisfactory careers. If work, which makes up a large part of our lives is satisfying, the rest of our life is usually satisfying.

Former Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan viewed the “job quit rate” as an index of a robust economy, since those below retirement age who decide to quit must believe they will have better or more interesting or fulfilling jobs to go to—a luxury employees have only in an economy which generates many job choices and openings. The job quit rate rose to 12.3 percent of the labor force in May 2005, the highest level in almost four years. Although being fired can lead to a good or bad job, we usually quit a bad job to acquire a good job. So job quit rate reflects a level of confidence, eagerness to improve jobs, and optimism that employees (and consumers) express about their job prospects.

Occupational mobility and voluntary quitting (“internal sourcing”) can be instrumental in filling potential gaps in the supply of U.S. workers that have advantages over off-shoring (“outsourcing”) and importing immigrants (“in-sourcing”). Very specific primary and secondary benefits accrue to the US economy by using home-grown talent and U.S. workforce versatility. These indices are good news for the economy, and very good news for the individual, for the following reasons:

The global economy drives local labor supply and demand in the U.S. economy, making rapid competitive responses essential. “The more flexible the economy, the greater its ability to self-correct after inevitable, often unanticipated, disturbances” says David Leonhardt, in a New York Times article about why FedEx keeps their cargo planes in the air half empty: they can mobilize themselves promptly in response to changing demand conditions.

  • Similarly, workers can mobilize themselves to change jobs, occupations, specialties (and even careers) when desirable or necessary. Thus our workforce versatility, occupational mobility, and job quit rate become resources waiting to be used—a base from which to mobilize—in fact, a national asset. The U.S. economy in effect “turns on a dime” when necessary, by allowing or encouraging versatile, talented and productive workers to shift jobs or careers with ease and alacrity.
  • Significant occupational mobility and job quit rates reflect a kind of “lubricant” for our market-place mechanisms. This greases our “turn-on-a-dime” economy for skilled and semi-skilled members of the labor force: gold-collar(scientists and physicians), white-collar(lawyers), blue-collar(trades), no-collar(laborers) and pink-collar workers(female professionals).
  • Individuals benefit from the change, allowing each of us to tailor our skills and preferences to the job, or to search out and find the jobs that fit our skills and preferences. Better salaries, improved career well-being, and job satisfaction often accompany (or produce) increased labor productivity. Secondary gains appear in Gross National Happiness, which has increased significantly in the U.S. over the past three decades. Personal fulfillment and productivity also increase when people feel wider decision-latitude and responsibility for their job and career decisions. For example, those following a ‘straight-ahead’ academic career, in the footsteps of their professors and mentors, especially need to understand that a linear occupational trajectory is not the only career direction available. The real world is filled with those who find satisfaction by following “broad” and “divergent” career paths.
  • “Gross National Resilience” stabilizes the U.S. economy. “The more flexible the economy, the greater its ability to self-correct after inevitable, often unanticipated, disturbances”, Mr. Greenspan said in a speech while he was still Fed Chairman. “The impressive performance of the U.S. economy over the past couple of decades, despite shocks that in the past would have surely produced marked economic contraction, offers the clearest evidence of the benefits of market flexibility”. This flexibility of the whole is linked to the flexibility of the parts: the job quit rate and occupational mobility.
  • We work harder when we discover jobs or careers we like. “The face of Nature may be compared to a yielding surface”, Charles Darwin said, “with ten thousand sharp wedges packed close together and driven inwards by incessant blows, sometimes one wedge being struck, and then another with greater force”. These struck wedges can be re-imagined as individuals striving to penetrate an economy (a face of Nature). Among their sharper assets are flexibility, resilience, persistence, “struggling to the utmost” and eagerness to make a difference.

A landmark study by Eli Ginzberg that tracked outstanding professionals found about 58 percent followed a “straight-ahead career path”, entering and remaining in one field or activity. About 29 percent followed a “broad career pattern”, shifting fields or moving into administration. And some 13 percent followed a “variant pattern”, changing career directions completely. This is consistent with (although possibly unrelated to) the 12.4 percent “job quit rate” and the 10 percent “occupational mobility” rates.) One conclusion of the study: achieving career satisfaction and success is not a fully-conscious process, but had to be learned from the alternatives encountered -- semi-serendipitously and by trial and error. In other words, those people who change jobs or careers (mobilizing themselves and quitting until they find the right fit) tend to be productive and satisfied in their work . This may require hard work, nevertheless, and years of floundering or “occupational exploration” to attain.

There are individuals who design or acquire their career satisfaction ‘intelligently’ by changing careers until they find what’s right for them. They do this by developing a flexible ‘master plan’ that accommodates even serendipitous career events and chance encounters. Louis Pasteur said: “Chance favors the prepared mind.”

In studies of thousands of educated individuals, college graduates, and credentialed professionals who change jobs and careers, some are found to be self-directed career-changers who switch jobs naturally, intuitively, instinctively, and productively. They are productive because they fully and energetically enjoy the exercise of their signature talents, skills, and strengths. They are productive because they find new ways to express their strengths. Because their skills dovetail with their job, career, or calling, their work fits like a glove and they arrive at a kind of “inevitable” match to their work. They are invigorated, not exhausted. One of these rare individuals has said, “My work is now a worthy expression of who I am”. George Bernard Shaw said, "the true joy in life [is]...being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one.”

Layoffs, quitting, and career changing give us variety and variation in the workforce, in our start-ups, and in our established companies. Compared to other countries, the U.S. labor force works the most hours annually, has the shortest period of unemployment benefits, and the shortest vacations of any of the capitalist democracies. Darwin observed that variability of offspring—coupled with the energetic searching for a niche—produce hardened survivors.


Dr. Rosen is Chairman of Scientific Career Transitions, specializing in the career problems of scientists and physicians; Celia Paul is President of Celia Paul Associates, a New York City based career counseling firm specializing in lawyers and doctors.

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