Jobs

Stuck in That Same Old Dead-End Job

Workers might finally be feeling a little more comfortable making their move.

Change is good. Right?

Photographer: Mark Kauzlarich/Bloomberg

I was at a conference last week on the "Digital Future of Work." Expert after expert talked about the new reality of the workplace, in which doing the same thing for the same employer for years and years was no longer possible, and job switching and career switching are inevitable. Median job tenure, said a participant in one panel discussion -- and others were soon repeating the statistic -- was down to just 2.5 years. 1

"Hmmm," I thought to myself when I heard that. "That doesn't sound quite right." I had a laptop and a Wi-Fi connection, so I checked the Bureau of Labor Statistics' latest data on median job tenure for wage and salary workers in the U.S.: 4.2 years in 2016. That was down from 4.6 years in 2014 but still higher than it was in the late 1990s and early 2000s:

Sticking With the Same Job

Median tenure with current employer for wage and salary workers

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics

The BLS has been asking this question every two years since 1996. It asked less frequently before that, and there were some differences in who was asked before 1983. 2 But for a column early last year, I harvested the numbers all the way to 1951, so here goes again (the dotted lines represent missing years):

Sticking With the Same Job (Since 1951)

Median tenure with current employer*

Sources: Bureau of Labor Statistics, Employee Benefit Research Institute

*For all workers prior to 1983, for wage and salary workers since

Median job tenure rose during the Organization Man 1950s, fell during the less conservative 1960s, and kept sliding during the turbulent 1970s and 1980s. None of that should be a huge surprise. What's happened since, though, kind of confounds the conventional narrative. Job tenure rose from 1987 through 1996, a time when people seemed to be getting increasingly worried about job instability (prime example: the epic and gloomy 1996 New York Times series on "The Downsizing of America"), only to decline during the late-1990s boom. Then tenure began a long rise as the economy struggled, and only began falling again once the job market became markedly healthier after 2014.

One thing this probably signifies is that cyclical conditions matter: When the job market is weak, people hold tight to the jobs they have. When times are better, those with jobs are more willing to switch and those without them finally get hired, both of which drive median tenure downward. If you think of the period from about 2001 through 2014 as one long down-cycle -- and according to some economic indicators it was 3 -- that may explain much of the rise in median job tenure over that stretch.

Still, it does seem quite odd that, in this age of supposed dislocation and disruption, median job tenure is about the same as what it was in the mid-1960s. Are all those experts on the digital future of work hallucinating when they see big changes afoot? "I feel pretty confident saying that the relationship between workers and businesses is less stable than it used to be," says Ethan Pollack, research manager for the Future of Work Initiative at the Aspen Institute, who was also at that conference last week. "That said, I do recognize that the data itself is complicated."

As soon as one begins to dig deeper into the data, in fact, it becomes clear that the relatively static overall tenure numbers mask some big changes for specific groups:

A Different Picture for Middle-Aged Men

Median job tenure, men ages 45 through 54*

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics

*For all workers prior to 1983, for wage and salary workers since

This particular demographic is significant in part because it includes the author of this column, but also because experienced, expensive men so often seem to be the target of corporate downsizing drives. And sure enough, their median job tenure has fallen a lot since the early 1980s -- although it has been pretty flat for the past decade-plus.

Whose median tenure has gone up? In an article in the February 2014 American Sociological Review, sociologists Matissa Hollister of McGill University and Kristin E. Smith of the University of New Hampshire singled out married mothers, who from 1983 through 2008 became much less likely to leave their jobs when they had kids:

Our findings support the view that job tenure is declining for all groups, but women’s greater labor force attachment, especially their more continuous employment around childbirth, countered and masked this trend.

On the other hand, other recent labor market research has found that job switching, which you'd think would be inversely related to tenure, has been declining -- and that changes in the composition of the labor force don't explain it away. From a 2013 paper by the Census Bureau's Henry R. Hyatt and James R. Spletzer:

Between 1998 and 2010, rates of job creation, job destruction, hiring, and separation declined dramatically, and the rate of job-to-job flows fell by about half.

And a 2016 paper by the Federal Reserve Board's Raven S. Molloy, Christopher L. Smith, Riccardo Trezzi and Abigail Wozniak:

We document a clear downward trend in labor market fluidity that is common across a variety of measures of worker and job turnover. This trend dates at least to the early 1980s if not somewhat earlier.

It could still be that most of this is an artifact of that long economic down-cycle I mentioned above. Last year, Mike Konczal and Marshall Steinbaum of the Roosevelt Institute proposed that weak labor demand since 2000 might explain most of the mobility decline:

The evidence shows that employed workers are getting fewer offers to work at other firms, reducing their leverage to demand raises from current employers and leading to wage and earnings stagnation on the job.

In that case, the rhetoric of jobs being less secure doesn't necessarily contradict the data showing people staying in them longer. Also, the decline in median job tenure from 2014 to 2016 seems like potentially great news. After talking about job switching and career switching for years, more people are finally getting the opportunity to do it.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

  1. I'm not going to name and shame the panelist, because he's a good guy with a more-than-full-time job that (unlike mine, apparently) does not involve memorizing BLS job tenure statistics.

  2. Before then, they asked self-employed workers as well as wage and salary workers. 

  3. Gross domestic product grew at a healthy pace from 2003 through 2006, thanks to the real estate bubble, but labor market and productivity measures were weak.

To contact the author of this story:
Justin Fox at justinfox@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Brooke Sample at bsample1@bloomberg.net

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