Who me? Actually, I'm just leaving

In Silicon Valley, you're nobody unless you change jobs every six months. Now serial quitting is taking hold over here. URSULA KENNY reports
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In a small but forward-thinking corner of the workplace, a revolution is occurring. Long-held and deeply ingrained values about the way we work are being challenged, found wanting and abandoned; specifically the need to stick at jobs, stay with them through thick and thin, and bow to peer group pressure.

It's being replaced by an attitude that has been imported from America's Silicon Valley. In a complete reversal of roles, "quitting" in some sectors is quickly becoming the new "sticking" - a realistic, valuable and, yes, admirable option.

Typical of this new approach is 27-year-old Caroline Evans who finished college and went straight in to a job on the internet website of a national newspaper. Quite a peachy position by anyone's standards, but after six months she decided to leave. "I went to do the same job at a TV company for more money, but I didn't like it much, so after five months I quit that too and went to work for an internet company.

"I stayed there only a year, because I seemed to be the one doing all the work while others got the credit. I'm actually going to leave my new job soon, which will mean that in just under three years I have worked for five different companies."

Exhaustion aside, serial quitting certainly hasn't done her any harm. Moving on is very much a part of the landscape in the new and ever-expanding internet industry and, as Caroline says, "Quitting and starting somewhere new is an absolutely standard and acceptable practice in the area I work in. I got a pay rise every time and because new media businesses start up on an almost daily basis, leaving is quite normal and seen as a sign of success. You just move onwards and upwards."

It seems we are going through an extraordinary period workwise. Certainly people at every level of the internet industry are leaving to chase money because they can.

"Supply and demand is in favour of such skilled workers at the moment," says Rufus Olins at Management Today magazine. "It's both unprecedented and empowering for certain employees who feel that there is always another opportunity out there, that they're in control of their destiny and can choose what to do."

But while the internet industry is undoubtedly at the sharp end of successful quitting, there is a bigger picture. Mark Hastings at the Institute of Management says that a booming economy and job market, along with the end of the job for life, have given many people a much greater sense of ownership over their careers. "They feel free to move around more, rather than stick with one company and work their way to the top in the way that we used to," says Hastings. "This is especially true in newer industries like IT, advertising, marketing and the media."

A recent Labour Force survey backs all of this up; in the spring of this year, 312,000 people had resigned from their jobs in the previous six months, while in 1995 the figure was just 192,000. "The quit rate is higher," says City analyst Guy Feld at Teather and Green, "because attitudes have changed. There is no stigma attached to redundancy any more, no problem with being sacked, and quitting certainly isn't frowned upon."

On the other hand, giving up your pounds 50,000 marketing job for the sake of trying something new isn't everyone's idea of fun. Certainly age and circumstance are key to successful quitting. "You have to be able to fail," points out Rufus Olins. "You have to feel that the risk of failure isn't going to be too great. So successful quitters are hardly likely to have three children to feed and a huge mortgage."

Except when they're Andrew Standing (41, two children, fairly huge mortgage) who took the plunge recently. "I'd been working in the IT department of the same retail company for 15 years and in the last few years, increasing numbers of my under-30 staff had been leaving. When I asked them why they'd say no, they weren't unhappy, yes, they could do with more money, but primarily that they were going because having one company on your CV, no matter how good, just isn't a good career move any more. It made me think about myself and I decided to give quitting and re-starting a go."

His only regret is that he didn't do it sooner. "Apart from the fact that the change has really motivated me and made me realise how bored I was before, I know that whatever happens in my new position, I am much more marketable now than if I'd stayed where I was."

Mark Hastings feels that employers will increasingly see quitters as winners. "Some employers are already actively seeking out employees who have four or five jobs on their CV over those they feel may be too infused with just one way of doing things, one way of thinking. A variety of positions on a CV implies that the potential employee is both dynamic and confident."

At the same time, though, employers are suffering. "In some areas, like IT, companies have serious retention issues," says Angela Barron at the Institute of Personnel and Development. "For some the quit rate is too high, typically these companies say that if they could up retention by 10 per cent they would save millions of pounds in recruitment."

David Knight, a senior consultant at Erskine Management Consultancy, feels that to a certain extent companies have brought it on themselves. "Increasingly inflexible pay structures, for example, mean that many employees know that the only way of increasing money is to move on. Also employees no longer feel that their loyalty is valued and it certainly isn't rewarded; people aren't tied in to a particular workplace in the way that they used to be because companies aren't creative enough in terms of flexibility and benefit packages."

Mostly, though, he sees successful quitting as a sign of our times. "Risk- taking, innovation and the ability to adapt are very important at the moment," he continues, "and in the same way that people aren't prepared to `make do' in a relationship any more, neither are they prepared to `make do' in a job."

Corporate psychologist Ben Williams feels that this new attitude is both good and bad. "People tend to be loyal to skills nowadays rather than companies, which is no bad thing in itself, so if serial quitting suits you then I'd say go ahead. But this trend is indicative of a new shallower value system; we want instant gratification, we want everything now and if we don't get it then we just move on."

If we can.

"I do think that elements of society are losing sight of core values like dedication in a way that just wouldn't work across the board," Williams continues. "We can't all be quitters - it would be disastrous for teachers, for example, to adopt this attitude." He also questions how happy quitting can really make us. "In my experience employees want two things from work: success and contentment, and while serial quitters are obviously successful, whether they're content is quite another matter."

Mark Hastings, meanwhile, feels that the word "quitter" still brings a lot of baggage with it. "Perhaps `changer' or `chooser' would be better," he ponders. "But whatever we call it, the new mood for quitting/changing/ choosing will prevail. Work culture is evolving."

David Knight agrees. "Once employees find out how easy quitting and re- starting is they'll do it over and over again."

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