There’s a widely held belief that Americans are less loyal to employers than they were in prior eras. And with pensions virtually extinct and job security close to nil, who can blame them. But the truth is employees stick with the same job longer today than they did 10, 20, and 30 years ago — and economists say that may not be a good thing.
U.S. workers had an average job tenure of 4.6 years in 2012, the last year for which figures are available—that’s up from 3.7 years in 2002 and 3.5 in 1983, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The trend holds up within almost every age and gender category — so it cannot be explained away by women’s increased presence in the workplace, or people working past traditional retirement age.
American workers are stuck in a rut, economists say. Despite improvements in education and technology, they’re staying in their jobs longer rather than seeking new opportunities. A high “churn” rate is typically seen as a reflection of a healthy economy. “People are holding on to their jobs not because they want to, but because they don’t have as much opportunity as they once did,” says Anthony Carnevale, director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce.
There were 3.9 million job openings in October, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, which is little changed from the previous month. The 3.3 percent hire rate and 3.1 percent “separation” rate — people quitting, getting laid off or discharged — were also broadly unchanged.
American workers are also not sticking with their jobs out of mere convenience—certainly not when it comes to their commutes, studies suggest. Although 54 percent of workers say they like the people they work with, only 29 percent feel valued in their jobs and just 35 percent say they have a fast commute, according to a new survey by jobs listing website CareerBuilder.com and research firm Harris Interactive. More workers want to get out: 21 percent of full-time employees want to change jobs in 2014, the largest percentage since 2008 and up from 17 percent in 2013, the study of over 3,000 workers found. “During the recession and in its aftermath fewer people voluntarily left jobs because the chances of finding a new or better one were low compared to a healthier economic cycle,” says Rosemary Haefner, vice president of human resources for CareerBuilder.
Older workers are staying in employment longer than any other age group. Over half of workers age 55 to 64 and those age 65 and over had 10 years or more of tenure in 2012, compared with fewer than 10 percent of workers in their 20s and 30s, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics data. Older people in the workforce are less reluctant—or able—to retire since the Great Recession, experts say. Since 2000, workers aged 65 and over have made up an increasing share of overall employment, rising from 2 percent in 2000 to 4 percent in 2012. “Older people are hanging on in the workforce longer,” says Steven F. Hipple, economist at the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
“Younger people have been hurt most by this,” Carnevale says. It now takes the average worker until age 30 to earn the national median salary; young workers in 1980 reached that point in their careers at age 26, according to a 2013 Georgetown University study, “Failure to Launch: Structural Shift and the New Lost Generation.” Young men have been hardest hit: As their access to blue-collar occupations has declined over the past three decades, they’ve been left unable to find work or are increasingly likely to work in jobs that pay less. In 1980, young men earned 85 percent of the average wage in the labor market; today, they earn only 58 percent, Carnevale says. Women stayed in the same job for 4.6 years in 2012, up from 3.4 percent in 2002; men stayed for 4.7 years, up from 3.9 years over the same period.
Of course, there has been some recovery in the labor market in recent years. There were about 4.2 million so-called separations in October 2013, the latest month for which data are available; this is still down from 5.1 million in 2006, but a significant improvement on 3.9 million separations in 2011 at the height of the recession. Plus, a 25 percent churn rate is still considered a dynamic jobs market by international standards, he says, especially as it’s closer to 10 percent in many European countries where staying in the same job is often regarded as a positive choice. Plus, Carnevale expects 30 million job opportunities created by retiring boomers over the next 10 years, starting sometime after 2016 — good news for the next U.S. President. “Whoever comes next will be able to do all the happy talk,” he says.
Quentin Fottrell is a personal finance reporter for MarketWatch based in New York. You can follow him on Twitter @quantanamo. This article originally appeared on MarketWatch.com and is reprinted by permission from Marketwatch.com, ©2014 Dow Jones & Co. Inc. All rights reserved.