March 26, 2013 at 4:36 PM ET
It used to be common for someone to stay in a job for 20 to 25 years and then retire. But now, a person who's been at the same job that long is as rare as a unicorn. So, how long is too long nowadays — and is it time for you to quit?
"Years ago, a colleague of mine who had held the same title for a number of years went to HR to discuss why she wasn't getting promoted," Jen Hubley Luckwaldt wrote on PayScale.com. The HR person replied: "People really only have your job for two years, max. Then they leave and go somewhere else. You've been here, what, six years? That's too long. I don't know what to tell you," Luckwaldt wrote.
"The norm is for people to move around a lot more than they did a few decades ago," said Marie McIntyre, a career coach and author of "Secrets to Winning at Office Politics." "I think when you're looking at resumes now, it's kind of unusual to see a resume where someone has been with the same company for 15 to 20 years."
In fact, the average employee tenure was 4.6 years last year, according to the Labor Department.
The pros of moving around include getting a raise, which McIntyre estimates is often around 15 to 20 percent, building your industry experience and broadening your network.
Nowhere is the longtime employee more rare nowadays than on Wall Street.
"Large banks have shown no loyalty to their employees and have let go of longtime and short-time people over the past few years, so there isn't any stigma either way," one former Wall Street trader said.
"One piece of advice I got a long time ago, 'Do you have your resume ready at all times? No? Your CEO does.'"
Nowhere else to go
Matt Wallaert, a 30-year-old behavioral scientist at Microsoft's Bing search engine division, has worked at five different places in the past 10 years. He says the inherent career path has changed.
"Companies used to have more clear paths to leadership without additional education or outside experience. You could increase your responsibilities each year," Wallaert said. "But that job structure has changed: It is very common for people to reach a ceiling where they can't climb any higher, simply because there is nowhere else for them to go."
So, they'll have to go somewhere else to get that higher-level job, that different experience or education in order to advance.
Still, he suggests the right answer is "if." If you're still being challenged, if your compensation is fair, if your responsibilities continue to increase, then it's OK to stay at the same job a long time.
McIntyre agrees. While changing jobs every four or five years tends to be viewed as a plus nowadays, if you stay at one company for 10 years or more but get promoted three or four times, that looks good to prospective employers.
However, she cautioned that sometimes, employers are dubious of long-timers and their ability to adapt to a new environment. There's a risk that they'll keep saying: Well, when I was at X company, we used to do it this way.
And, of course, "longtime" is relative to the industry. In the tech world, McIntyre said, six months is a long time to be at one job, while in government, five years is "still regarded as kind of new to people who've been there longer!"
When is it time to leave?
McIntyre said she's definitely seen an uptick in people looking for new jobs as the economy improves.
"The most-visited page on our website this quarter was 'Job Hunting When You Have a Job,'" she said. "That's the first time ever!" The site, which has been around since 2005, typically sees the most traffic on its performance pages such as "How to Ask for a Raise."
"People hate feeling trapped," McIntyre said." I think during the down economy, a lot of people just felt trapped."
And, she's seeing her clients get more job offers.
"I don't get as many letters anymore about how bad the economy is!" she said. "It's more about job-search strategies."
So, how do you know if it's time to leave your job?
Amanda Augustine, a job-search expert at The Ladders.com, offers these sure signs:
McIntyre adds that if your boss screams, yells and curses at you often, it's also time.
And, if you're a boss wondering if your employees are looking for a job right now, the answer is yes. Seventy-four percent of employees admitted that they have looked for a new job while at work, according to a recent survey from Right Management.
Luckwaldt said first, don't use company equipment. Just assume that your employer is tracking your Internet wanderings. It's better to set up email alerts from various job sites and check your email on your phone.
And, the former trader adds, get out there networking like your life depends on it and have your resume handy at all times. If you're out there looking, you never know when it's "go" time!