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Signs It Might Be Time to Change Jobs

Knowing when to leave is part of owning your career path.

Key points

  • The pandemic has heightened awareness of people’s options, as well as economic disparities.
  • Intelligent career paths require individual intention and responsibility.
  • There are four clear signs that it’s time to make a change.
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Neon sign.
Source: Austin Chan/Unsplash

If there is any bright side to this endless global pandemic, it’s that it has made people aware that they have options professionally. Not everyone, of course, and many people have been economically and personally devastated by the past two years. Women, in particular, have fallen behind in economic and professional gains in staggering numbers (and they weren’t doing that well before); women of color more so. Not only that, but those we have deemed as “essential workers” have sacrificed their health and well-being to ensure that the rest of us can still buy our toilet paper and go out for Taco Tuesday and complain about whether our schools will be in-person or online this year. We have learned a lot about economic, social, and racial disparities, and it hasn’t been pretty.

But for those with a certain amount of privilege, this pandemic has opened a window of sorts to reconsider what life and work should look like and the ability to make intentional choices about the future. This, I believe, is a very good outcome and one that I hope we won’t lose sight of in the weeks and months to come. Because the world of work didn’t change due to the pandemic. It’s been changing for decades. And the smart professional knows when to stay and when to leave and how to tell the difference.

The “flighty young professional” is a myth.

Today’s young people—new grads and Millennials alike—have gotten an undeserved reputation for their propensity to job hop with abandon. We hear: Today’s young people are flighty. They lack commitment. They have no work ethic. They lack loyalty. Any of these statements could be said about any individual young professional, certainly. But to make them into sweeping generalizations about an entire generation is unfair and lacks evidence.

The truth is, today’s young people aren’t job-hopping with any greater frequency than previous generations did. The tendency to explore, to question one’s decisions, to get into that first job and think, “Hmm, this isn’t exactly it,” has nothing to do with being a "flighty young professional" and everything to do with being 20-something and still figuring things out. The previous generation did it. So did the one before that.

And, like them, at some point, this generation will gain some clarity on their strengths and interests and eventually find their way into roles and lives that better suit them. It’s part of the growing up process and what happens when you move from adolescence fully into adulthood (Arnett 2000). And, of course, there’s a lot we still don’t know about the impacts of COVID on today’s young professionals and their career trajectories. But what we do know is that increasingly, the responsibility for figuring out what’s next rests with them.

Boundaryless career paths require individual intention.

A number of years ago, a co-worker told me, “You should change jobs every three to five years.” It seemed like strange advice at the time. Now, I rather agree with it.

In my experience, three to five years is the window when either you can do your current job with your eyes closed, in which case it’s time to make a change, or you’re never going to get it, which means it’s time to make a change. It doesn’t mean jumping to a new organization or role because it seems like the thing to do. It means getting intentional about your career path and the best opportunities that will continue to help you move forward.

Today’s career paths are “boundaryless,” built over multiple organizations, industries, or roles (Defillippi & Arthur 1994). They require individual intention to figure out when and how to make a change, seek out growth opportunities, and build skills and networks of purpose. And it starts on day one.

Fortunately, whether you are a brand-new professional or one with years of experience, there is a great model you can use to guide you that comes out of research into intelligent careers (Arthur, Claman, & Defillippi 1995). The research identifies three career competencies that everyone can and should master: knowing why, or knowing what your core values are and what motivates you to work; knowing how, or knowing what skills and abilities you need to be successful both now and in the future and creating a plan to fill them; knowing whom, or knowing who can help you to move forward on your path and taking steps to develop those relationships. At every point in your career, you should be able to name those three things. And you need to build an intentional, individual plan to fill your gaps and to build relationships with people who can help you along the way.

How to know it’s time to make a change

The key to these boundaryless career paths and intelligent careers is that you, the individual, do the work. You own your path; you take responsibility for your choices and decisions; you figure out when it’s time to make a change. That doesn’t mean you should do it alone. Quite the contrary. We all need a strong network of mentors, wise counselors, sponsors, and connectors who can help guide us. But ultimately, your career path belongs to you and no one else.

So how do you know when it’s time to make a change? While there are all sorts of reasons, there are four clear signs it’s time to do something different and worth your attention.

  • The culture or your manager is toxic. There is never a good reason to stay in a situation that is impacting your health if you have the option to leave it. Obviously, there may be financial reasons to stay. You might need health insurance. But don’t kid yourself into thinking that the situation is going to get better. If you are suffering from mental, emotional, or any other kind of abuse, it’s time to make a change as soon as you are able to do so.
  • You aren’t learning. A clear sign that it’s time to make a change is when you can say to yourself, I can do this job with my eyes closed. You’re no longer learning anything new; you’re no longer challenged; you’re simply going through the motions. You’ve hit that window where you have completely mastered the role. Not only is it time for you to find something new, but your organization needs you to find something new, as well, as you’re becoming dead weight at this point.
  • There’s no clear path forward. If you are someone who is driven by ambition, by the climb, and you can’t see opportunities to advance where you are, then it’s time to make a change. Now, don’t make assumptions here. Just because you don’t see a path forward doesn’t mean one does not exist. Do your homework, ask the questions you need to ask, then make an educated, intelligent decision about the right next step for you.
  • You want to do something different. Finally, you might just want something different. You might want to try a new field or a new role. You might have discovered a new passion or rediscovered one you had buried. Something like the pandemic may have opened your eyes to your meaning and purpose, and you want to find something that’s more in line with those things. This is always an OK choice! Life is short, and you should not live anyone else’s life but your own. The time to start is today.

Change doesn’t always mean wholesale change. It can mean taking on a new assignment, changing teams, just doing something different than you were doing before. When I reflect on that conversation about changing jobs every 3-5 years, I realize I have done so even more frequently than that. But I have worked for exactly two organizations over the course of my career. My change has looked like a new assignment, a new project, a new way to grow my skills and challenge myself. And those changes have kept me interested and invested, both in myself and in my organization, which has kept me moving forward in intentional and productive ways.


Arnett, J.J. (2000). Emerging adulthood: A Theory of development from the late teens through the twenties. American Psychologist, 55(5), 469–80.

Defillippi, R.J., & Arthur, M.B. (1994). The boundaryless career: A competency-based perspective. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 15(4), 307-324.

Arthur, M. B., Claman, P.H., & Defillippi, R.J. (1995). Intelligent enterprise, intelligent careers. The Academy of Management Executive, 9(4): 7-22.

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