Human beings were not meant to sit in little cubicles, staring at computer screens all day.” – Peter Gibbons, Office Space (1999)

Act 2, Scene 1. Less than six months into my second career, I was miserable. I had a job, a good salary, and a small group of new friends. I had a new house to call home, with a view of the woods and within walking distance of a lake. The dogs had a big yard for once. By most measures, I had landed well and in a good place.

But I had no purpose. My role was new and ill-defined, with ambiguous responsibilities. I’d been shuffled to three different offices in that space of time. I kept busy, but not in a way that felt productive or meaningful. To make matters worse, I felt alone. The deeper sense of connection, the feeling of team that comes with years in uniform, was gone. Not even a year into my second act, I was questioning my role and thinking hard about moving on.

Then two things happened. One, I saw an opportunity to carve out a niche for myself that would provide the sense of purpose I so desperately needed while at the same time pulling me closer to my former “tribe.” Two, a department chair reached out and offered me an opportunity to teach in his area, something that would allow me to share decades of experience in a way that provided genuine value to the institution.

When I marked the first anniversary of my retirement a few months later, my perspective (and morale) had improved significantly as I prepared for Scene 2 of my second act.

The Numbers Don’t Lie

In the years since, I’ve had more than a few of my former peers mention that I had “hit the retirement lottery.” From the outside, my second act looked like a perfect landing. Then I remind them that many of us share that first-year experience – the looming sense of loss that comes with transition. Even if you land the dream job, there’s a good chance that you won’t escape those feelings.

The numbers don’t lie. Of the roughly 200,000 servicemembers who enter the veteran space each year, nearly half leave their first job within a year and roughly 80% within two years. Those numbers vary from year-to-year, but the trend remains consistent. Even though veteran unemployment sits at a historical low, those numbers can be deceiving when you look below the surface.

It’s not a matter of job skills. According to a 2019 Pew report, 88% of GWOT veterans felt qualified (or overqualified) for their first job, and 61% believed their military skills and experience contributed directly to their hiring. One-in-four veterans walked right into a civilian job, 78% were employed within twelve months, and 94% in slightly more than one year after transition.

None of that explains the nomadic life of the post-transition veteran in the job market. According to a Korn Ferry analysis of veteran employment data, “veterans re-entering the civilian workforce have little trouble finding jobs, but they have significant problems keeping jobs.” What drives so many veterans to pack up and change jobs so soon after separation?

Hitting the Landing Zone

There are three distinct answers to that question. The raw data only tells part of the story; the numbers don’t lie, but they also aren’t as revealing as you’d think.

1. Soft Landing

First, we naturally aim for soft landing zones. We look for jobs that have a strong veteran culture or deep ties to the military. While this eases us into transition, the role might not be the best fit. Having served in a profession where we routinely change jobs every 18-24 months, this isn’t necessarily a cause for concern. We hit the landing zone, get our feet firmly on the ground, and move out and draw contact (look for a more suitable role). The turnover churn looks bad in the data, but it’s explainable.

2. Team Bonds

Second, we lose the bonds of the team we once had. While a great number of employers appreciate and want to employ veterans, not all of them are fully prepared to do so. The same Korn Ferry report noted that 70% of organizations don’t train their hiring managers on veteran-specific hiring practices and more than 60% don’t provide any onboarding or transition support for veterans, who then struggle to regain that sense of team. Employers that provide such support typically see the investment translated into higher retention rates.

3. Sense of Purpose

Third, we lose our sense of purpose, our raison d’etre. Many organizations struggle to define purpose and direction, both of which are fundamental to military service. Transitioning from a profession where your existence is framed by an oath to the Constitution to one where you’re just putting in the hours can be tough. We need to be challenged. Without that sense of purpose, we struggle. As the character Peter Gibbons so aptly put in the 1999 film, Office Space: “Every single day of my life has been worse than the day before it.”

This is the worst of all possible outcomes. This was my experience, one shared widely among a vast majority of the veterans I have since coached through this process. It’s not about the money, it’s not about the stability, it’s about the need to have a greater purpose. When we don’t find one, we move on, again and again, until we find it.

NOmadic Veteran Life

Act 2, Scene 5. Yes, you read that right; I am that nomadic veteran, one of the 80% who change jobs every couple of years. At some point, I accepted the fact that years in uniform hardwired that into me. I like a new challenge, and when one presents itself I pursue it. However, I’ve been fortunate enough to pursue those challenges with a single employer, which has allowed me to regain that sense of team and belonging that means so much. I gave up on business cards years ago and my office number usually changes before I can memorize it, but there are worse ways to go through your second act.


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Steve Leonard is a former senior military strategist and the creative force behind the defense microblog, Doctrine Man!!. A career writer and speaker with a passion for developing and mentoring the next generation of thought leaders, he is a co-founder and emeritus board member of the Military Writers Guild; the co-founder of the national security blog, Divergent Options; a member of the editorial review board of the Arthur D. Simons Center’s Interagency Journal; a member of the editorial advisory panel of Military Strategy Magazine; and an emeritus senior fellow at the Modern War Institute at West Point. He is the author, co-author, or editor of several books and is a prolific military cartoonist.