Information on employee tenure—the length of time that workers have been with their current employer—may not grab headlines or get mentioned in social media as frequently as other measures of the labor market, such as employment growth, the unemployment rate, or earnings trends. Nevertheless, measures of employee tenure can be useful in understanding long-term trends in the labor market.
The Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) has been reporting on American workforce tenure since 1966. At first glance, it appears that there is good news – we are told that tenure with one’s current employer has trended up over the past decade. The median employee tenure—the point at which half of all workers had more tenure and half had less tenure—was 4.6 years in 2012. The BLS says that median tenure has increased since the 2000 level of 3.5 years.
However, how does this fit with other statistics released by the BLS? Since 1979, their economists have been conducting a study to better assess U.S. workers’ job stability over time. In 2012, the BLS reported that the number of jobs that people born in the years 1957 to 1964 held from age 18 to age 46 is eleven. In a separate report, the BLS also reported that during this same period these workers experienced 5.4 “spells of unemployment”. While the BLS research does not address the number of these job changes that reflect a career change, other studies indicate that multiple careers is also the norm.
Then how do we reconcile an increase in tenure with an increase in the number of jobs held? Consider the tenure data carefully. It only takes into consideration workers who are currently employed. Given the unemployment rate over the past few years, the flaw becomes obvious. In addition, this long-term rise in tenure also reflects the aging of the workforce:
When examining the data by gender or ethnic groups, the inconsistencies between tenure estimates, number of positions held, and periods of unemployment become more pronounced.
What conclusions can be drawn from this data? A contingent workforce is defined as “a provisional group of workers who work for an organization on a non-permanent basis.” That describes all of us! We don’t have to work for a staffing agency or as an independent contractor to meet that definition of contingent. However, we do have to recognize that job searching is a life-long endeavor and life-long learning is an absolute must!
Median tenure across the different age groups has changed very little since 1996. The only exception to this inference is the median tenure for persons age 65 and over, which has increased since 1996. In addition to increasing tenure among persons age 65 and over, there has been a shift in the distribution of employment by age in recent years.
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