Afraid of Unemployment, Americans Cling to Their Jobs

Afraid of Unemployment, Americans Cling to Their Jobs
Nervous workers are hanging onto their jobs longer than they have since the mid 1980s.
Photograph by Mike Kemp/Corbis

Americans who are lucky enough to have jobs are hanging on to them longer. A new analysis of Census Bureau data shows that median job tenure in 2012 was the highest since at least the early 1980s.

The Employment Benefit Research Institute said on Dec. 19 that the median time on the job for American wage and salary workers aged 25 and older was 5.4 years as of the beginning of 2012. That was up from 4.7 years in 2000, when hiring was strong, the jobless rate was low, and it was easy for quitters to get new jobs.

The year 2013 “should be pretty similar to 2010-12″ in that people will continue to hang on to their jobs, Craig Copeland, the EBRI senior research associate who wrote the report, said in an interview. “The unemployment rate is still high. There doesn’t seem to be a lot of job creation.”

EBRI drew on Census data released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics in October but delved into the numbers more deeply than the government agency’s report did. (Another difference: The BLS focused on workers 16 and over, while EBRI focused on workers 25 and older.)

Men’s median tenure was 40 percent longer than women’s in 1983: 5.9 years on the job for men vs. 4.2 years for women. The decline of manufacturing and unionization shortened men’s tenure. Women’s tenure rose because more of them began pursuing careers, not just casual employment. This year the gap was just 2 percent: 5.5 years for men and 5.4 years for women.

The truism that civil servants have steadier jobs is true: Median tenure in the public sector was 8.3 years for wage and salary workers aged 20 and up, nearly twice the 4.3 years for private-sector workers.

There’s other evidence that jobholders remain nervous. The Bureau of Labor Statistics says that the quit rate in October—the number of quits as a percentage of total employment—was just 1.5 percent. That’s a third lower than the rate in December 2007, the peak of the last business cycle. And it’s not too far above the 2009 low of 1.2 percent.

One last thing about job tenure that’s worth noting: Overall, it’s pretty short. The job for life is a rare thing. That has implications for public policy. Many workers in companies with traditional pensions are leaving before they accumulate meaningful retirement benefits. And people with 401(k)s who skip from company to company could burn up their savings if they take lump-sum payouts instead of rolling over their old plans into new ones. Writes Copeland: “Enrollments in means-tested welfare programs could increase significantly if large numbers of retirees prematurely exhaust their own savings reserves.”

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