Insecurity Complex

Myths of job volatility


At a Joint Economic Committee hearing in February, Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) claimed that American incomes had become unacceptably volatile, victim to "tectonic shifts" caused by technology and international competition. Schumer asked the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) to release hard numbers on individual income inequality.

The requested statistics, released in April, paint a different picture. Using data from the Social Security Administration's Continuous Work History Sample from 1980 to 2003, researchers conducted an analysis of lifetime earning patterns. They find that "since 1980, the trend in year-to-year earnings variability has been roughly flat." The amount of variability in the average individual's income hasn't budged since the 1990s, or even the 1980s.

The lack of a noticeable rupture in the economy does not mean that all workers experience the same amount of instability. Younger workers are more susceptible to swings in income than older ones, and women face more volatility than men. Still, the overall picture of individual income volatility since 1980 is one of surprising consistency.

The CBO results dovetail with other studies that find economic stability amid fears of outsourcing, immigration, and new technologies. A December 2005 working paper by Ann Huff Stevens, an economist at the University of California at Davis, compared snapshots of job tenure for men at the end of their careers in 1969 and in 2002. She found that the average length of the longest job for a man retiring in 1969 was 21.9 years, compared with 21.4 years three decades later. "Long-term relationships with a single employer," she concludes, "are an important feature of the U.S. labor market in 2002, much as they were in 1969."