Two years have passed since I joined the workforce and started at a nonprofit in New York City. In that span of time I’ve watched dozens of friends change jobs—a few more than once. As one told me, “I can’t imagine being in the same place for two years.”
How is it that what was once unremarkable—staying put—is an increasing rarity among younger workers in today’s marketplace?
It’s hard not to see the benefits of switching. The tantalizing prospect of better pay, new environments, and meaningful work is an interview away, and who can resist the seemingly endless opportunities on the horizon? To the question, “Is this really what I want to be doing for the rest of my life?” comes the answer, “I don’t know, but it isn’t this”—with the present reality of paperwork, long hours, and stress.
I admit the same question has crossed my mind, too. There may in fact be excellent and legitimate reasons to leave: poor fit, God’s call elsewhere, layoffs. I don’t discount them.
But amid the abundance of praise for millennials who change jobs every year or two, I’ve heard quieter and subtler voices counseling me to stay put and affirming the value of doing so. They offer two compelling reasons for continuing on.
Commitment to Faithfulnes
First, staying put means a commitment to faithfulness in the present. To change one’s job requires a reassessment of all existing commitments, a consequence that often leaves church and community secondary to career. Staying put, however, shifts the focus from the next opportunity to the current one, from uncertainty to service, from personal gain to contribution. A job is not simply a title for a résumé or a stepping stone for a career. It is, or it can be, a calling from God.
Jeremiah’s oft-cited letter to the exiled Israelites in Babylon underscores this point. What enables people to build homes, plant gardens, and bear children (Jer. 29:4–7)? Work. To be precise, by staying put at work, you stay put in a particular neighborhood. It demands “a long obedience in the same direction” to make that neighborhood home, to learn how to work with colleagues, and to see—slowly but surely—meaningful results. To seek the welfare of the city means to labor for its flourishing. And that requires an understanding of work and workplace as part of a calling.
Compare Jeremiah’s exhortation to faithfulness to the present day. A recent Gallup report notes:
Only 29 percent of millennials are engaged at work, meaning only about 3 in 10 are emotionally and behaviorally connected to their job and company. Another 16 percent of millennials are actively disengaged, meaning they are more or less out to do damage to their company. The majority of millennials (55 percent) are not engaged, leading all other generations in this category of worker engagement.
Even if we grant that part of the responsibility lies with employers, this lack of faithfulness or engagement hinders witness and harms credibility. A job is, in essence, a covenant between employer and employee, a mutual commitment to work together for the good of others. If we Christians are disengaged from the workplace, ready to leave at the first sign of trouble or opportunity, what reasons would companies have to care either? Work becomes drudgery rather than a way to bless others, and that attitude seeps into the rest of life.
The consequences extend far beyond the marketplace. Communities are undone by constant uncertainty. Homes are left unfinished, gardens untended, families unmoored. No longer is the welfare of the city sought. Instead, it’s to each his own. And we look no different from anyone else.
Capacity for Responsibility
Second, staying put leads to increased trust and responsibility. “One who is faithful with little is also faithful in much” (Luke 16:10). Every employee represents his or her firm, not just in a professional context but also in a personal one. Every action establishes a reputation, and a good reputation is worth far more than anything money can buy (Prov. 22:1). One acquires such a reputation only after time.
When I first started working, older friends and mentors advised that mastering a job would take about three years. Much to my ongoing disappointment, so far that’s proven true. There are few exceptions, since becoming excellent at a particular job it isn’t only a matter of skill and experience but also of time. It takes time to learn the proverbial ropes. It takes time for a boss to understand the gifts and strengths of an employee. It takes time for work to bear fruit. Even the smallest projects at the nimblest of organizations take time, way more than the six months a graduate expects to need to change the world. It requires both explicit knowledge, which can be taught in a classroom, and what philosopher Michael Polanyi calls tacit knowledge, which can only be learned by experience and practice.
With time and trust, a job shifts from a generic set of tasks outlined in a job description to a specific set of responsibilities and opportunities to contribute to an organization. This is the kind of meaningful work we so desperately want, where projects and interests start to align, a sense of fit begins to grow, and it becomes clear God has prepared us for such a time as this (Esth. 4:14). In some small but significant way, we see a glimpse of his kingdom as we labor. We know we belong here, and that perspective transforms our work into worship.
Advocates for change are plenty and persuasive, saying, “It is all part of the new economy of work. Firms are no longer loyal to their employees anyway. The 20s are the best time of life—perhaps the only time—to explore dreams and passions.” All that, and more, may be true and legitimate and irrefutable, but don’t forget to count the cost and consider the consequences. A change is not always a gain.
In fact, “Is this really what I want to be doing the rest of my life?” might be the wrong question to ask. No matter whether we stay or go, we serve a sovereign God who has gifted us with exactly the right skills and opportunities to flourish as his children. We may not know what’s next, but if we give our work to him—as those before us have done—he will lead us on a great adventure of faith, trust, and love.