Is there such a thing as a 5-year career itch?

Updated: Oct 27

close up of a number 5 on a tape measure

Until 18 months ago, I was one of a scarce breed amongst my friends and peers - I had spent all my career, nearly 25 years of it, in the one organisation. My sister, likewise, spent the first 24 years of her career with one company.

Over the years, I was often asked why I stayed in the same place so long - sometimes with horror, sometimes admirably. But the answer to me was clear - whenever I was bored or ready to move on, I managed to find a new role in the same organisation that interested me enough to stay.

Not long before I left, I took part in a panel at a team’s female leadership group. There were four of us of various ages and stages of our careers. Two of us had been with the organisation a very long time, and two of us had joined more recently - one as a graduate and one as an experienced hire. There was a question about longevity in a role, and it was then that I realised that my 25-year career could be split down into 5, 5-year “chunks” where I had taken on different roles or stayed in the same position and morphed it into something else.

Five years is a good time for staying in a role. It might seem like forever when you’re young, but remain in a role too little, and you have a short term view in the role that doesn’t help the organisation in the long term. More than five years, and you may begin to stagnate - also, there is a risk that your team or the organisation doesn’t benefit from a fresh pair of eyes. Thinking this way, it makes sense that most Board roles are for terms of 3-4 years with a max of 6 to 8 years in total.

woman looking upwards with hand on chin thinking

So if you are getting that 5-year career itch, what do you need to consider?

Moving to another role in the same organisation can give your career the lift it needs. You get a chance to keep building your internal network (my network in my old firm was one of my greatest assets), reduce the hassle factor of moving companies, and still develop your career. Be aware, though, of the “pay penalty” - one thing I and others of long-standing service found was that as organisations recruit leaders from outside, they pay them a premium to get them to join - and so in comparison to my peers, I was relatively underpaid. If your pay is lagging behind, but you still bring value, then have a conversation about fair compensation and reward. Also, make sure you really want the new role and aren’t just taking it as an easy option.

I was fortunate in the latter stages of my career that I had the autonomy to shape the role in the way I wanted to. If you are in this position, think about turning your role into something new. What opportunities is your organisation missing? Can your team move into new areas? As well as giving your career a new lease of life, you can demonstrate strategic leadership skills - just make sure you have a well thought through plan to back it up.

Sometimes you just run out of options in your existing employer. When this happens you need to go for a career change. Understand what you are looking for in your next role, employ the services of a career coach if you are unsure. Use your network and see what’s possible - not all positions are advertised.

If you’ve read all this and are still unsure what to do, I wrote a blog earlier in the year with some questions to help you think through whether you should stay or go.

Yes, I miss my colleagues and the culture and atmosphere of my old company - but I don’t regret leaving. I had ran out of appealing options if I stayed - and so when the 25 years was coming around, I knew it was time to say goodbye.