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Why mid-career workers are quitting (and how to keep them)

Mid-career team members may be quitting because they find their job uninspiring. Laura Gassner Otting says the key to retention may be in job descriptions.

5 min read



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Quiet Quitting, Loud Quitting, the Great Resignation … call it whatever you want, but it’s not a new phenomenon. In fact, it’s been brewing for decades.

As a 20-year veteran of executive recruiting, I spent much of my time on a search pre-engagement, actually disengaging my clients from the tried-and-true scorecard of eight widely accepted vital factors that would motivate anyone at any time to consider jumping ship for a new opportunity. This list of what makes a good job good — mission, leadership, challenge, scope of impact, acquisition of new skills, prestige, benefits and money — does not take into consideration what makes a good job good for each specific employee at each given age or life/career stage. Worse, employers have become convinced that money is the only top factor on this list. (Spoiler alert: it rarely is.) 

No age group was more intensely affected coming out of the pandemic than the mid-career worker. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, workers aged 30 to 45 years old, whose average resignation rates rose by more than 20% between 2020 and 2021, led the way. For many companies, that meant a hollowing out of middle managers, those responsible for setting and spreading corporate culture and goals, something which presented trouble in both the short and long term. While recruiting is an excellent opportunity to bring in fresh blood, it can also be a pivotal time to double down on retaining existing team members by giving them what they want. 

What do workers really want?

What I learned in 20 years of talent strategy consulting is that happiness is fleeting, but consonance lasts. Consonance is the feeling of harmony and alignment that comes from knowing that you’ll need to do your very best to solve a problem you care about. Then, you will be rewarded for solving that problem in a way that is personally, financially and emotionally meaningful to you. In short, it’s when “what you do” matches “who you are.” 

Four factors comprise consonance that help workers feel as though their work really matters: calling, connection, contribution and control. 

  • Calling is the gravitational force that gets you out of bed in the morning; it’s the leader you want to serve, the cause you wish to remedy, the business you want to build and the family you want to nurture. 
  • Connection is how your daily work connects to that calling, reminding you of the relevance of your actions. 
  • Contribution lets you know how this job, this brand, this paycheck and this position will help you build the life, career or bank account you want. 
  • Control answers how much personal agency you have over any/all of the above.

In a survey that I began in early 2019 and continued throughout and past the pandemic — answered by nearly 7,000 people from 74 different countries in almost every sector and demographic — several trends emerged from the 1,897 respondents who self-identified as 30-44 years old.

One of the most surprising is that only a little more than half (55.8%) of these respondents stated that they needed more contribution from their work than they already had, while 7.6% said that they had too much. In the latter’s case, the rewards they were getting from the work they were doing were already satisfactory. 

On the other hand, 62.5% of respondents were looking for more calling, that is, inspiration to do work that excited them for leaders who inspired them and on problems that resonated with them. Sixty-five percent wanted to have more control over the teams to which they were assigned, the projects on which they worked or the ability to influence their hours or earnings through their hustle. Probably least surprising, at a time when workers have been asking themselves, “Does my work really even matter?” is that 62.7% reported that they wanted more connection from their day-to-day tasks to the big picture.

Luckily, this problem is a lot cheaper to solve than the age-old response of throwing money at it. Even better, one of the most public tools that hiring managers are already using right now to recruit new employees — the position description — can be used to solve this problem faster and cheaper.

Retention through recruiting tools

Job candidates do not just read position descriptions but are often secretly scanned by current colleagues. A good job description will excite new candidates to apply, especially some that might have yet to have after reading only a few trite paragraphs of boilerplate information. But a great job description will retell the story of “why” your organization exists and how it dovetails with the callings of your current team members, rekindle the joy and excitement that brought current staff to your organization in the first place, and remind them how their day-to-day work fits into the bigger picture.

Additionally, the process of writing the position description can bring your team together to discuss central themes and challenges facing the new hire. Meeting with your team early will also increase the likelihood that they feel some control and investment in the recruiting process and the success of your latest staff member, as well as their retention. You will benefit by asking questions of key staff and stakeholders who will surround the new hire, which will then inform the position description and, in turn, enrich the conversations, the interviews and the evaluation process both presently and in months and years to come through new, shared and re-invigorated language and goal posts. 

In other words, a great position description will not only make the hiring process smoother, it will also sell the organization externally and internally. It can also serve as a mini-strategic planning session, provide clear performance evaluation metrics to the hire and the supervisor and build interpersonal relationships that have recently been strained by pandemic-driven distance.

Opinions expressed by SmartBrief contributors are their own.


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