For the past year, U.S. unemployment has been at a stunning five-decade low, and the Bureau of Labor Statistics counts roughly 7 million job openings currently going begging. At the same time, wage growth has been lackluster or, adjusted for the cost of living, slipping a little. Since changing jobs is one of the few surefire ways to make more money (not to mention giving your career a boost with, say, a fancier title) you might think this is the perfect time to jump ship.
Or then again, you might not.
The most puzzling aspect of this rip-roaring job market has been the “quits rate,” that is, the BLS’s count of how many people voluntarily leave their jobs (presumably for better ones). It stayed flat, at about 2.3%, for most of 2018 and even, in some months and regions of the country, declined. With opportunities thick on the ground, why have surprisingly few people chosen to change jobs?
Now comes a new study from global workforce management company Workforce Logiq that might help shed some light on that. Based on a survey of 1,720 employees across a range of industries and income levels, the research found that nearly three-quarters (72%) are staying put right where they are, even if they don’t like where they are. Why? Fear that a recession is coming—and sooner rather than later.
No one knows, of course, when the next recession will start. But it seems many employees are taking no chances.
“We expected to find that survey respondents would be more willing to pursue new roles,” says Jim Burke, Workforce Logiq’s CEO. Instead, particularly among those who were blindsided by the global financial meltdown that officially ended in mid-2009, workers now want to avoid “being ‘last in, first out’ of a new organization, and potentially out of a job in the midst of an economic downturn.”
Indeed, the study notes, “the fact that most people in the talent pool are not even entertaining the thought of a new job opportunity could signal that workers are already behaving as if we are in a recession.” Asked how often they look around to see what jobs might be available, only 25% said “all the time” or “regularly.” The 75% majority said they check out job opportunities elsewhere only now and then, or never.
That’s obviously great for companies intent on retaining current employees, but it’s pretty grim for employers with openings to fill. Even offering top candidates a lot more money won’t make much difference, Burke says, unless the extra dough comes with the right message. At several points in the not-too-distant past, he points out, “unprofitable start-ups and highly leveraged companies” enticed talent with talk of growth potential and innovation, along with plenty of cash. Now, however, that has changed. Candidates know they could earn more in a new job, but they worry about “the long-term cost of unemployment if their new company should get into financial trouble.” To woo someone out of the job they already have, Burke says, “the salary discussion must be supported by a strong message of long-term financial stability.”
Something else that might help in hiring: More emphasis on helping newbies fit in. The study says that 41% of all those polled gave “cultural issues” as a reason for their reluctance to move somewhere else. If you’ve ever had to adapt to a whole different workplace culture, including its unwritten rules and expectations, or found yourself trying to build a reputation among a new set of colleagues (and bosses) who didn’t know you from a bar of soap, you know what a struggle it can be. Interestingly, freelancers and independent contractors fret more about this than regular employees do, perhaps because of their “outsider” status. “These worries for contingent workers,” the study says, “if not adequately addressed, can lead to more turnover and less productivity.”
Anne Fisher is a career expert and advice columnist who writes “Work It Out,” Fortune’s guide to working and living in the 21st century. Each week, she’ll answer your most challenging career questions. Have one? Ask her on Twitter or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.