How Long American Workers Stay at Their Jobs

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As the U.S. economy has improved over the past several years, the median number of years an American worker has stayed at one job has declined from a recent peak of 5.5 years in 2014 to 5.1 years in 2016. In 1983, the median job tenure was 5.9 years.

Between 1983 and 2012, 52.7% of all workers 20 years of age or older had been with the same employer for five years or more. In 2016, 50.6% of workers have been with the same company for five years or less.

The data were reported Wednesday in a study by the Employee Benefit Research Institute (EBRI). The study noted that the decline in job tenure coincided with a decline in the U.S. unemployment rate as the economy improved following the financial crisis of 2008.

The study’s author and a senior research analyst at EBRI, Craig Copeland, said:

The data on employee tenure—the amount of time an individual has been with his or her current employer—show that career jobs never actually existed for most workers and continue not to exist for most workers. The idea that current American workers change jobs more frequently and have less employment security than past generations is not borne out by the numbers.

Other key findings include:

  • The median tenure of public-sector workers has been significantly longer than the median tenure of private-sector workers from 1983 to 2016. The public sector median tenure has ranged from two-thirds longer to just over two times longer. In 2016, the median tenure for public-sector workers was 8.5 years compared to 4.1 years for private-sector workers.
  • These tenure results indicate that, historically, most workers have changed jobs during their working careers, and all evidence suggests that they will continue to do so in the future. This persistence of job changing over working careers has several important implications—potentially reduced or no defined benefit plan payments due to vesting schedules, lump sum distributions that can occur at job change, and public policy issues both through lower retirement incomes of the elderly population because of benefits lost at job change and the experience of the public-sector labor force, which has workers with higher levels of longer tenure who are likely to be retiring soon.
  • From 2014 to 2016, the median tenure decreased for private-sector workers and the share of workers with shorter tenure levels increased, suggesting that both new workers have been added to the private sector labor force and workers already there have changed jobs, potentially to better jobs, as the economy has improved.
  • The median tenure for male wage and salary workers ages 25 or older was 5.2 years in 2016 (down from 5.5 years in 2014), compared with 4.9 years in 1998-2002 (lowest years) and 5.9 years in 1983 (highest year). By comparison, the median tenure for female wage and salary workers ages 25 and older was 5.0 years in 2016, which was down from 5.4 years in 2014 (highest year) but up from 4.2 years in 1983 (lowest year).

Over the time frame of the study (1983 through 2016), job tenure for male workers fell from 5.9 years to 5.2 years, while job tenure for female workers rose from 4.2 years to 5.0 years. The increase in female job tenure more than offset the decrease in male job tenure.

The full study is available at the EBRI website.