Tenure, Tracked

By Nevin Adams, EBRI



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.


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.

U.S. Job Tenure Ticks Up, But Still Short

Blog.Notes.Dec12-Tenure.Pg1 Americans who have jobs are staying in them longer as overall job tenure in the United States ticked up in 2012, but U.S. job tenure is still shorter than many assume.  The median (mid-point) length of time on the job for American workers in 2012 is just 5.4 years, according to new research from EBRI.

“Career-long jobs never existed for most workers,” said Craig Copeland, EBRI senior research associate and author of the report. “Historically, most workers have repeatedly changed jobs during their working careers, and all evidence suggests that they will continue to do so in the future.”

The EBRI report reveals that the historical data show that the U.S. workforce has always had relatively low median tenure: The idea of holding a full-career job and retiring with the proverbial “gold watch” is a myth for most people.

Copeland added that the overall trend of higher job tenure masks a small but significant decrease in median tenure among men (despite its increasing in recent years), which has been offset by an increase in median tenure among women. He added that the once-striking gap between long-tenure public and private sector workers is beginning to narrow.

The full report is published in the December 2012 EBRI Notes, “Employee Tenure Trends, 1983-2012,” online at www.ebri.org


Jean Chatzky Column on EBRI Job Tenure Data

Richmond Times-Dispatch, March 10, 2011

The financial columnist Jean Chatzky has a good article running in the March 10 Richmond Times-Dispatch based on EBRI’s recent report on job tenure — how it’s increasing, and what the impact on retirement benefits may be for workers who change jobs frequently.

The full story is online here.

EBRI’s full report is in the December 2010 EBRI Notes, “Employee Tenure Trend Lines, 1983-2010,” online here.

Jean Chatzky is an editor-at-large at Money magazine and serves as AOL’s official Money Coach. She is the personal finance editor for NBC’s “Today” show. Her website is www.jeanchatzky.com  The story included reporting by Arielle McGowen of the Times-Dispatch.

EBRI: Job Tenure Ticking Up, But Gender Gap Disappearing

The median length of time that full-time workers stay in their jobs ticked up slightly in 2010, to just over five years, continuing a slow increase in job tenure that began in 2004, according to a new report in the December issue of EBRI Notes.

However, the EBRI analysis shows there are significantly different long-term trends by type of worker. For instance, job tenure for men has been falling since 1983, while women’s tenure has been rising over that period, to the point where the once-big gender gap in job tenure has almost closed. Because women’s tenure has been increasing while men’s tenure has been falling, the overall job tenure rate has been relatively stable.

EBRI also found that older workers appear to be staying in their jobs longer. But overall, the results show that the American work force over the past three decades has always had a high level of turnover—and probably will in the future as well.

“For the great majority of American workers, so-called ‘career jobs’ never existed, and they certainly do not exist today,” said Craig Copeland, EBRI senior research associate, and author of the study. “A distinct minority of workers have ever spent their entire working career at just one employer.”

The findings are published in the December EBRI Notes, “Job Tenure Trends, 1983–2010,” and are based on the latest data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey.

The full report is online here. The press release is online here.

Media coverage:


Kansas City Star