Falling Job Tenure: It's Not Just About Millennials

by: The Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta

By Julie L. Hotchkiss and Christopher J. Macpherson

The image of a worker in the 1950s is one of a man (for the most part) who plans on spending his entire career with one employer. We hear today, however, that "...long gone is the lifelong loyalty to a corporation with steadfast servitude for years on end." One report tells us that "people entering the workforce within the past few years may have more than 10 different jobs before they retire." The reason? "Millennials don't like commitments." Well, the explanation is probably not that simple, but even simply measuring trends in job tenure is also not all that straightforward.

Despite a strong impression that entire careers spent with one employer are a thing of the past, some have declared the image of job-hopping millennials a myth. (You can read some discussions at About.com, CNBC, and Marketwatch, for example.) These reports are all based on a September 2014 news release from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) stating that among every employee age group (even the youngest), median job tenure has not declined from when it was reported 10 years earlier. (Median job tenure is basically the "middle" amount of job tenure. If all workers are lined up from lowest tenure to highest tenure, the median tenure would be the amount of time the person in the middle of that line has been with his/her employer.)

Chart 1 illustrates the biennial data on job tenure reported by the BLS and interpreted by the reports mentioned above as indication that job tenure is not falling. Each line represents an age range, from 20- to 30-year-olds at the bottom (the lowest median tenure among all age groups) to 61- to 70-year-olds on the top (the age group with the highest median tenure). It sure doesn't look as though workers at each age group are staying with their jobs for shorter periods.

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However, the problem with simply comparing median tenure across time by age group is that different ages at different time periods face different labor market institutions, incentives, and expectations. There are generational, or cohort, differences in what the labor market looks like and has to offer a 25-year-old born in 1923 and a 25-year-old born in 1993. In other words, each generation is represented across the age groups at different points in time.

The different colored points across age groups in chart 1 indicate the range of years the people in that particular year, in that age group, were born (and to what named generation they belong). The labor market facing a 31-to 40-year-old baby boomer in 1996 looks quite different from the labor market facing a 31-to-40-year-old Gen Xer in 2012, and the social, economic, and behavioral differences are even more dramatic the farther apart the generations become.

For example, one of the most dramatic changes facing workers has been the transformation from defined-benefit to defined-contribution retirement plans. The number of years a worker spends with an employer is no longer an investment in the employee's retirement. (William Even and David Macpherson (1996) illustrated the important link between the presence of an employer-sponsored retirement plan and worker tenure in their paper "Employer Size and Labor Turnover: The Role of Pensions.")

Additionally, the share of those 25 and over with a college degree in the United States has increased from 5 percent in 1950 to 32 percent in 2014, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau. A more educated workforce is one with more general, or transferable, human capital, reducing the need to stay with just one employer to reap a return on one's investment in human capital. The transition of the U.S. economy from a basis in manufacturing to one based in services, supported by technology, also means employers require more general, rather than specific, human capital.

Firms have also changed the way they invest in workers, offering less on-the-job training than they used to, weakening their ties to the worker. And on top of all of this, because of near-instantaneous access to information, movies, and music brought by the digital age, younger cohorts are purported to have shorter attention spans than older cohorts (as reported here). All these factors shape the environment in which workers and employers view the value of longevity in their relationship.

To get a more accurate picture of the lifetime pattern of median job tenure and how it has changed across generations, we use the same BLS data used to produce the chart above to group workers into cohorts, or people who have similar experiences by virtue of when they were born. In other words, we rearrange the data used in chart 1 to line people up by birth year rather than by calendar year in order to illustrate (in chart 2) that median job tenure is indeed declining through the generations.

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What we see in this chart-using the 20- to 30-year-olds, for example-is that the median job tenure was four years among those born in 1953 (baby boomers) when they were between 20 and 30 years old. For 20- to 30-year-olds born in 1993 (millennials), however, median job tenure is only one year. Similar-and some even more dramatic-declines occur across cohorts within each age group.

Declining job tenure is not just all about millennials having short attention spans. In fact, there is a greater (five-year) decline in median job tenure between 41- and 50-year-old "Depression babies" (born in 1933) and 41- to 50-year-old Gen Xers (born in 1973). So, just as our colleagues here at the Atlanta Fed discovered with regard to declines in first-time home mortgages, millennials aren't to blame for everything!

So what does declining job tenure mean for the U.S. labor market? From the perspective of the worker, portable retirement savings and, now, portable health insurance mean that workers confront a world of possibilities that our parents and grandparents never dreamt of. Yes, perhaps the days of predictability in one's career is a thing of the past. But so is the "eggs-in-one-basket" loss of retirement savings when your employer goes out of business as well as potentially slower career progression within a single firm.

From the economy's perspective, the flexibility of workers seeking their highest rents and the flexibility of firms to seek better matches for their needed skills mean greater productivity - not to mention growth - all around.