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50-plus years on the job: An extremely rare bird

Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich.

FORTUNE — More people are working longer and retiring later than ever before in U.S. history — yet very few toil long enough to receive a 50-year pin or party from a single employer.

Those who reach the 50-year mark are rare enough to merit articles in company newsletters and media outlets, whether they work for the Lawrence Welk resort, an auto company, or U.S. Congress. This week, Rep. John Dingell, 87, announced plans to retire after a record 59 years in office, making him the longest serving congressman in U.S. history. His wife, Debbie Dingell, is expected to announce on Friday that she will run to fill his seat.

Tenure length for U.S. employees at individual firms has inched up since 2000, and the median is now around 4.6 years. Time served has increased more for women than men, and more for workers older than 65, according to economists at the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Around one in 10 U.S. wage and salary workers has logged 20 or more years at a single employer as of 2012, the most recent data, up from 9% in 1996. The BLS does not keep data for 50-year tenure rates.

Yet tenure is not rising for all: The share of workers aged 45 to 64 with 20 or more years at one company has stayed the same or declined, BLS data show. It’s fallen fastest for men now in their mid-40s; in 1996, nearly three in 10 had worked at one place for 20 years; by 2012, that portion had declined to just over two in 10. A report by the Employee Benefit Research Institute shows that men’s median tenure began to drop after 1983 for those 45 and older.

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A change in attitudes likely accounts for part of the dip in tenure, as job hopping has become an acceptable method for workers to secure higher salaries or escape corporate troubles. But other factors have contributed to the reduction in the number of workers who can boast they’ve been at the same job since Lyndon B. Johnson was in the White House.

“They’re very, very rare,” and have become rarer still in the last 10 to 15 years amid corporate takeovers and layoffs, says Craig Copeland, a senior research associate at the Employee Benefit Research Institute. Copeland notes that federal data collectors for the Current Population Survey stop counting tenure at 39 years.

Gerald Davis, a University of Michigan management professor, agrees that staffers who’ve stayed at a single company for 50 years are minuscule in today’s workplace. “There aren’t nearly as many companies that last 50 years as there used to be,” says Davis, the author of Managed by the Markets. After staying stable from 1930 to 1990, all but three of the companies listed on the Dow Jones Industrial Average have turned over since 1990. “They don’t stick around the way they used to.”

Other firms have downsized or slimmed down through Chapter 11 bankruptcy reorganizations, cut pensions, and otherwise put an end to many careers.

In fact, all five companies with the most “loyal employees,” as ranked by PayScale, have filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy — Eastman Kodak (exited in September), Aleris (out in 2009), Visteon (out in 2010), General Motors (in and out in 2009), and United Continental (with United in bankruptcy through February 2006). Each has median tenure more than twice as long as all U.S. employers, according to Payscale.

Eighty-one-year-old Charley Hall started at a GM (GM) truck plant in Arlington, Texas, starting just two years after it opened in 1954. His 57-year tenure puts him among a handful of General Motors workers who have celebrated a golden work anniversary. “I always say, ‘You find a job you like and you never have to work a day in your life,'” he says. Hall serves as a team leader overseeing quality conditions at the plant. His granddaughter works at the plant with him, in the body shop, where he started his GM career.

For his 50th anniversary, Hall’s coworkers gave him a big party at lunchtime, and GM gave him a ring set with 12 diamonds. “It’s kind of like a Super Bowl ring,” Hall says.

Lillian Haddock, 89, received a chiming wall clock for her 50th anniversary at Marriott (MAR). She is nearing her 60th anniversary, which will be in December. She started working for Marriott at its Hot Shoppes restaurants near Washington, D.C., moved up to hostess, and then became a trainer at locations across the country. “I would teach the waitresses how to behave,” she recalled. She now works as a hotel ambassador at the Washington Dulles Airport Marriott, which she helped open in the 1970s.

“I felt like the company belonged partly to me,” says Haddock, who used to attend picnics at the Marriott farm. “It’s been splendid.”

Some 53% of workers say they’d like to stay with their current employer until they retire, according to a 2012 Towers Watson report, based on 32,000 workers in 29 global regions. Many would take smaller salary increases or lower bonuses if their employer offered a guaranteed retirement benefit, the defined pension plan that is gradually disappearing.

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So, who else stays the longest with a single employer? “People with long careers make investments in specialized skills” that may not be useful at another employer, Davis says, whether that’s the intricacies of the Ford (F) assembly line or the way an oil company records its mineral rights contracts. (His grandfather worked at Ford for more than 40 years; a Ford spokeswoman says the company has 22 U.S. employees with 50 years on the clock.)

Those who work in manufacturing, public service, agriculture, or at utilities are most likely to reach the half-century mark, Davis says. Copeland suggests family businesses could harbor more 50-year veterans since children may start there when they’re very young, and jobs where “brain power” matters, such as accounting or university staff, could be an ideal host for 50-year staffers.

The BLS data show utility workers and paper and printing manufacturing crews have the longest median tenures, both with more than nine years, while restaurant and bar staff have the shortest, with 2.1 years at a single job.

Architects and engineers put in average of seven years at a single employer, ahead of those in “protective service” — police and firefighters — at 6.4 years and management types at 6.3 years.

Public-sector workers work median 7.8 years, due in part to the fact that government workers tend to be older than the broader population. Government workers have tenure that’s twice as long as those in the private sector — that’s especially the case within the federal government.

Dingell, who was first elected in 1955, steps aside at a time when many federal and local workers also may be contemplating retirement. “It’s hard for me to accept, but it’s time to cash it in,” he says.