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What Great Resignation? Workers Are Staying Put

The past couple of years have been a famously tumultuous time for the US labor market — with the steepest employment losses ever early in the pandemic, a rapid recovery and then a so-called Great Resignation that was more about switching jobs than resigning.

Through all of that, the median number of years that American wage and salary workers have been with the same employer didn’t budge. It was 4.1 years in January 2020, and according to job-tenure data released by the US Bureau of Labor Statistics to little fanfare last month, it was 4.1 years in January 2022.

As is apparent from the chart, the amount of time Americans spend in the same job hasn’t changed all that much over the decades either. There are some comparability issues, with current statistics measuring tenure among wage and salary workers while those before 1983 (which I’ve harvested here from a 2019 Employee Benefit Research Institute paper) cover all workers, including the self-employed. But BLS reports from the 1960s indicate that the self-employed, especially the farmers among them, stayed in the same job longer than wage and salary workers did, so if anything, the pre-1983 tenure estimates are overstated compared with today’s, and median tenure has risen slightly since then.

Given how frequently one hears that we live in an age of  job hopping and unstable employment far removed from the “old model of work where you could expect to hold a steady job with good benefits for an entire career,” this is perhaps a surprising result. The tenure statistics don’t quite show that such claims are entirely wrong, though. 

For one thing, higher job tenure doesn’t always equate to more job stability or security. In a recession when many people are laid off and there are few new hires, median tenure will actually rise because only the people who still have jobs are counted. And in a strong labor market recovery, all those new hires drive tenure down.

Beyond these cyclical effects, placid overall job tenure numbers can cover up some pretty interesting currents under the surface. Here, for example, are the occupational groups that experienced the biggest increases or decreases in tenure from 2020 to 2022.

Local governments are struggling to hire enough police officers, firefighters and schoolteachers, and that’s being reflected as rising median tenure. In the occupations where median tenure is falling, a mix of job switching and hiring growth is probably driving the change. The rise in quits that prompted talk of a Great Resignation was concentrated in low-paid fields such as food service, where median job tenure was already quite low.

Tenure statistics are also available by industry, but the results are a little quirky so I’m going to skip making a chart. Median tenure in petroleum and coal products manufacturing was up by a whopping 4.1 years, while in furniture and related products manufacturing it was down by 1.9 years. Agriculture also experienced a substantial increase, while media and waste management both experienced big decreases. Add it all together, and there’s no change, but that doesn’t mean there were no changes.

Over the longer haul, some interesting undercurrents reveal themselves when you break things down by age and gender. Men 45 and older experienced sharp declines in median job tenure in the 1980s and 1990s, for example, although the situation has stabilized for them since. 

The decline in the 1980s and 1990s persisted through two business cycles, so I think it truly did represent reduced job security. Older men were hit hard by layoffs in the early 1980s and early 1990s, and those who were able to return to the workforce drove median tenure down. That stuff about the disappearance of the “steady job with good benefits” (it’s a line from a 2016 Hillary Clinton campaign speech) isn’t all wrong.The tenure for women of all ages, meanwhile, has mostly risen through the decades, although not during the past decade.

Here the increases up to 2000 mainly reflect women’s entry into the full-time, permanent paid US workforce. The share of women ages 25 through 54 with jobs doubled from 37% in 1951 to 74% in 2000. Many women were joining the workforce and thus driving tenure down throughout that period, but women staying in jobs and building careers more than made up for that.

Since then, the movements have coincided with the fluctuations of the job market, with median tenure rising amid the weak labor demand of the 2000s and early 2010s and mostly falling over the past decade as women’s employment rates rebounded.

One thing that stands out in both charts is the stability of median job tenure for those ages 25 through 34. For women, it has barely changed since the early 1980s; for men, it hasn’t really budged since the early 1950s (which implies that it has probably risen a bit). In other words, all that talk about millennials being inveterate job hoppers was mostly bunk. Yes, young adults change jobs more often than their elders, but as economist Gray Kimbrough has shown repeatedly using a different measure — the percentage of workers with at least two sequential employers in the same year — current young adults are less likely to do so than earlier generations did at the same age.

Another thing that’s maybe a little less obvious but seems important is the onset of what you might call normalization after about 2000. The decades before then experienced big shifts in men’s and women’s attachments to their jobs. Since then, men’s job tenure has held more or less constant while women’s has been cyclical. This shift from an age of disruption to a steadier era has also apparent 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.

More From Bloomberg Opinion:

• Labor Market Strength Is Also a Sign of Dysfunction: Conor Sen

• Labor Market Is Coming for Margins — or Worse: Jonathan Levin

• Working From Home Is Not an Urban Escape Hatch: Justin Fox

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

Justin Fox is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering business. A former editorial director of Harvard Business Review, he has written for Time, Fortune and American Banker. He is author of “The Myth of the Rational Market.”

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