Job Mobility, American Style

It's rising fast--mainly among men

An analysis of recent government data by the Employee Benefit Research Institute provides important new evidence that structural shifts in the U.S. economy and a rising tide of permanent layoffs have significantly increased job mobility. The EBRI analysis points to a sharp decline in male job stability in recent years.

Specifically, between 1991 and 1996, median job-tenure levels for men 25 to 64 fell by an average of around 19%. For those 35 to 64, the drop continues a trend that began in the early 1980s, after male job tenure hit a postwar peak.

But females' job tenure, which rose in the early 1980s, has remained relatively constant since 1983. The greater stability posted by women may be related to the surge in women working since the mid-'70s and the heavier toll among men of recent job losses.

The data also confirm that older men have been particularly affected by layoffs: Since 1983, median job tenure has dropped by 6 years, or 29%, among males 55 to 64, and by nearly 3 1/2 years, or 25%, among males 45 to 54.

While rising mobility may entail hardship for individual workers, many economists believe that it has contributed to employment and economic growth in recent years. It may be no coincidence that the U.S., which has the shortest average job tenure among industrial nations, has also posted the strongest gains in employment.

As the EBRI notes, however, mobility caused by layoffs can have negative implications for the economic security of affected workers--and for long-term national savings. Studies indicate that many laid-off workers take jobs that lack the health insurance they formerly enjoyed, for example. And many dip into retirement savings.

In fact, less than half of all lump-sum distributions from retirement plans--which are usually paid out when a worker loses or changes his job--are rolled over into Individual Retirement Accounts or similar savings programs.

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