Sooner or later as a parent you’ll be told—as you doubtless you told YOUR parents—that “that’s not the way things are now!” It’s a potent retort to whatever social more is at issue because, whether it involves a choice in dress, curfew, or even resumé preparation, our perspectives are often shaped (and sometimes distorted) by our recollection of the way things were for us at comparable points in time. Or, as we must sometimes admit, “the way things used to be.”
When it comes to things like working careers, there is a widespread assumption that past generations worked for a single employer for all, or most of his/her working years, and then retired with a pension and a gold watch. In contrast, current American workers are believed to change jobs (much) more frequently. In fact, many champion the defined contribution plan design as a better “fit” for today’s workforce, which—certainly in the private sector—is seen as lacking the kind of tenure necessary to accrue sufficient benefits under a traditional pension design.¹As it turns out, the latest data on employee tenure from the January 2012 Supplement to the U.S. Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey (CPS) show that the overall median tenure of workers—the midpoint of wage and salary workers’ length of employment in their current jobs—was slightly higher in 2012, at 5.4 years, compared with 5.0 years in 1983.
In fact, as a recent EBRI Notes article points out, the data on employee tenure (the amount of time an individual has been with his or her current employer) show that those so-called “career jobs” NEVER existed for most workers. Indeed, over the past nearly 30 years, the median tenure of all wage and salary workers age 20 or older has held steady, at approximately five years.
Looking inside those long-term numbers, different trends emerge. For example, the median tenure for male wage and salary workers was, in fact, lower in 2012, but the median tenure for female wage and salary workers increased (from 4.2 years in 1983 to 5.4 years in 2012). This long-term increase in the median tenure of female workers more than offsets the decline in the median tenure of male workers, leaving the overall level slightly higher over the long term.
When you focus on trends among older male workers (ages 55–64), the group that experienced the largest change in their median tenure during the period covered by the report, median tenure fell from a level that would not normally be considered career-length—14.7 years in 196—to just 10.7 years in 2012.
Ultimately, when it comes to job tenure trends,² the way things look today is remarkably consistent with “the way it used to be.” However, as is often the case, a closer look at the underlying data highlights that even the things we expect to be different aren’t always different in the ways we expect.
Nevin E. Adams, JD
¹ See also “The Good Old Days,” online here.
² The EBRI report highlights several implications of these trends: the effect on defined benefit accruals (even for workers still covered by those programs), the impact of the lump-sum distributions that often accompany job change, and the implications for social programs and workplace stability. “See Employee Tenure Trends, 1983–2012,” online here.