The average tenure of employment in the United States has not changed from early 2020 to early 2022.
The past two years have been a notoriously turbulent time for the US labor market – we saw the biggest job losses ever early in the pandemic, a quick recovery, and then the so-called great resignation that was more about changing jobs than quitting.
Through it all, the average number of years American workers with wages and salaries have not budged with the same employer. It was 4.1 years in January 2020, and according to job tenure data from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, it was 4.1 years in January 2022.
As can be seen from the graph, the amount of time Americans spend in the same job hasn’t changed much over the decades either. There are some comparison problems, with current statistics measuring length of service among wage and salary workers, while statistics before 1983 (compiled here from a 2019 Employee Benefits Research Institute paper) cover all workers, including the self-employed. But the BLS reports from the 1960s that the self-employed, particularly the farmers among them, have been in the same job longer than wage and salaried workers, so if anything, the pre-1983 estimates are inflated compared to the average present time. The tenure of the position has increased slightly since then.
Considering how often one hears that we live in an age of job-hopping and precarious work away from the “old business model where you can expect to hold a steady job with good benefits for an entire career”, this is perhaps a surprising result. However, tenure statistics do not show that such claims are entirely false.
For one thing, more tenure does not always mean more job stability or security. In economic downturns when many people are laid off and there are few new hires, average tenure will actually rise because only people who still have jobs are counted. With the strong recovery of the labor market, all these new hires lead to a reduction in the length of service.
Beyond these periodic influences, the function’s general quiescent numbers can cover some interesting under-surface currents. Here, for example, are the professional groups that experienced the largest increase or decrease in tenure from 2020 to 2022.
Local governments are struggling to hire enough police officers, firefighters and school teachers, and this is reflected in a higher average length of service. In occupations where average tenure is declining, a combination of job switching and employment growth is likely to drive the change. The increase in resignations that prompted talk of a “big quit” was concentrated in low-paying areas such as food service, where the average tenure was already very low.
Possession stats are also available by industry, but the results are a little weird, so I’ll skip creating a chart. Average holding in the petroleum and coal products industry increased by 4.1 years, while it decreased in the manufacture of furniture and related products by 1.9 years. Agriculture has also seen a significant increase, while both media and waste management have experienced a significant decrease. Put it all together, and there will be no change, but this does not mean that there have been no changes.
In the long run, some sexy undercurrents reveal themselves when you break things down by age and gender. Men aged 45 and over experienced a sharp decline in average working time in the 1980s and 1990s, for example, although their status has stabilised since then.
The decline continued into the ’80s and ’90s through a couple of business cycles, so I think it really represents a decline in job security. Older men were hit hard by the layoffs in the early 1980s and early 1990s, and those who were able to return to the workforce were able to reduce the average working period. These things about the disappearance of the “good-paying steady job” (a line from Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign speech) aren’t all wrong. Not over the past decade.
Here increases through 2000 primarily reflect women’s entry into the US full-time and permanent-paying work force. The proportion of women aged 25-54 in jobs doubled from 37% in 1951 to 74% in 2000. Many women joined the workforce, reducing their tenure throughout that time, but the women who stayed in jobs Building careers more than compensates them. which – which.
Since then, movements have coincided with labor market volatility, with average tenure rising amid weak labor demand in the 2000s and early 2000s, and mostly declining over the past decade as women’s employment rates have recovered.
One thing that stands out in both schemes is the stability of the average duration of employment for those aged 25-34. For women, this hasn’t changed much since the early 1980s. For men, it hasn’t really budged since the early fifties (which means it may have gone up a bit). In other words, everything that talks about Millennials being well-established career caravans has been mostly nonsense. Yes, young people change jobs more often than older people, but as economist Gray Kimbrough has repeatedly shown using a different measure — the percentage of workers with at least two sequential employers in the same year — current young people are less likely to do so. Previous generations did at the same age.
Another thing that may be a little less obvious but seems significant is the beginning of what you might call normalization after about the year 2000. The decades before that time saw major shifts in the association of men and women with their jobs. Since then, the duration of men’s labor has remained fairly constant while women’s periodicity. This shift from an era of turmoil to a more stable era has also been shown in measures of corporate volatility and startup activity. In that sense, these really are more stable times, even if they don’t always feel like it.
Justin Fox is a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion covering business. A former managing editor of Harvard Business Review, he has written for Time magazine, Fortune, and American Banker. He is the author of The Myth of the Rational Market.
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