Job-hopping isn’t just a Gen Z problem. Workers have always changed companies every couple of years

January 26, 2023, 3:27 PM UTC
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There isn't much of a difference between the length of time the median American worker stays at a job now compared to in the 1980s.

Stop the presses: It turns out another generation-defining stereotype was an overstatement.

Despite the rhetoric that younger generations are less loyal to employers and more likely to job-hop than their older coworkers, a new report from the Employee Benefit Research Institute (EBRI) finds there isn’t much difference between the length of time the median American worker stays at a job now compared to in the 1980s.

Using data from the federal government’s Current Population Survey, EBRI reports that over the past 40 years, from 1983 to 2022, the median tenure—the number of years a worker has been with their current employer—for wage and salary workers age 25 and older has stayed at about five years.

In 2022, the median tenure was 4.9 years, compared to 5.0 years in 1983. The highest median tenure was recorded in 2014, at 5.5 years, and the lowest in 2000, at 4.7.

Much has been made of younger workers, especially millennials, seemingly switching jobs more often than older generations. Depending on who you ask, it’s a reflection of Gen Y’s fickle nature, or the result of crumbling job stability.

But organizations, including the Pew Research Center, have looked at the same data as EBRI in previous years and come to the same conclusion: The less-than-loyal millennial worker is more a media myth than a reality. A longer tenure has less to do with any specific generation and more to do with the age of life a worker finds themselves in. Over the past four decades, younger workers consistently have lower median tenure lengths than older workers, which makes logical sense given they haven’t been in the workforce as long.

But tenure lengths for each age group have stayed relatively consistent over time, according to EBRI’s report. The median male worker in his twenties to mid-thirties spent around 3.2 years in a job in 1983, compared to 2.9 years in 2022. The median female worker in that age group spent 2.8 years at the same job in 1983, compared to 2.7 years in 2022. Basically, you can count on a young adult to change jobs after three years.

Still, the story line that millennials are singular in their desire to routinely seek greener professional pastures persists—and is now being foisted upon Gen Z, the generation currently entering the workforce for the first time.

“Career jobs (individuals holding only one job for their entire career) never actually existed for most workers and continue not to exist for most workers,” the report written by Craig Copeland, director of wealth benefits research, reads.

Some notable differences in median tenure lengths over time do exist, particularly when you break the data down into more discrete categories, like gender. Since the 1980s, there has been an overall decrease in how long men stay at the same job: While it hit 5.1 years in 2022, it stood at 5.9 years in 1983. But that has been counterbalanced by an increase in tenure among women, who had a median tenure of 4.2 years in 1983 compared to 4.7 in 2022 (it topped out at 5.4 years in 2014).

Interestingly, overall tenure was trending longer until 2020. In that year and in 2022, the share of workers with the shortest tenures increased. This can be explained because median tenure tends to fall in years with particularly strong labor markets, according to EBRI’s report. Think the Great Resignation: More people will be looking for better opportunities when they have the upper hand in negotiations.

“As the economy has improved…the overall tenure distribution has moved to shorter tenures,” the report reads.

All of this said, it is true that older workers tend to be in their jobs longer than younger workers. In 2022, the median tenure for men aged 55 to 64 was 10 years, compared to 2.9 years for those aged 25 to 34, and five years for those aged 35 to 44.

But again, that’s not necessarily because of the generation they were born into; rather, it shows that people tend to stay in jobs longer as they get older, no matter the decade.

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