Young workers, we’re told, have learned to trade stability for mobility and long-term benefits for short-term compensation. A 2003 New York Times trend piece summed up the media image when it declared that the modern, Gen X-driven workplace “operates without the myth of job security.”
There’s at least one problem with this take: A lack of any compelling hard evidence to back it up. In a recent working paper for the National Bureau of Economic Research, U.C. Davis economist Ann Huff Stevens compares snapshots of job tenure for men from 1969 to 2002. Using data from surveys of workers at the end of their careers, she finds that the average worker who retired in 1969 had put in 21.9 years at his longest job. Among workers who retired in 2002, the figure was 21.4. “Claims of the erosion of long-term employment relationships in the U.S.,” she concludes, “are exaggerated.”
Huff Stevens notes that her findings will be challenged by those who claim changes in job tenure have yet to play out; data on men at the end of their careers don’t say much about people entering the work force in the 1990s, when rates of job loss were particularly high. She counters that there is no compelling reason to believe that dipping retention rates in the 1990s marked a permanent shift, since rates promptly jumped to previous levels as the economy rebounded.
Studies of trends in job tenure for women—excluded from Huff Stevens’ study—tend to find increases, not decreases, over time, another sign that workers remain solidly attached to firms. Job stability may be as persistent a feature of American life as the myth of its decline.