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House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-7th, says Republicans must find ways to reduce economic insecurity in American families.
"Over the last 20 years, the world has changed," he said during a Feb. 5 speech to the American Enterprise Institute. "It used to be that one could make a career out of working for one company. Today, the average worker stays at his or her job for barely four years."
It’s a common refrain that people don’t stay at jobs as long as they used to and we wondered whether it’s true. Checking Cantor’s statement required two determinations: 1) How long does the average worker of today keep a job and, 2) Has the duration become shorter in the last 20 years?
Cantor’s staff directed us to numbers from the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics. The agency collects tenure data from the U.S. Census Bureau, which asks a sample of workers how long they have been with their current employer. The figures reflect the median responses, meaning that half of the workers have been with their employers a shorter time and half longer.
Since 1996, the BLS has published tenure statistics every other year. Immediately before then, it was published every five years. So it’s impossible to find data that neatly compares the 20-year span Cantor referenced. But the figures do allow a 21-year comparison, from January 1991 to January 2012, the date of the last report.
The median tenure for U.S. workers in 2012 was 4.6 years, longer than the 3.6 years recorded in 1991. So contrary to Cantor’s contention, the length of time employees stayed with companies increased.
The problem with this data is that it includes all workers, starting at age 16.
"Those people are in school, starting out doing part-time work and may have a first job in retail," said Craig Copeland, a senior research associate for the Employee Benefit Research Institute in Washington. "When we get to 25, we’re seeing people who are starting their career … that’s the age where people begin to have a strong workforce attachment."
In an article he wrote for the institute’s newsletter, Copeland singled out the figure for all workers 25 or older. The median tenure was 4.8 years in 1991 and 5.4 years in 2012. By this measure, too, the length of time employees stayed with companies increased.
Copeland’s analysis of the data goes back to 1983, when workers 25 or older had a median tenure of 5.0 years with the same company. He noted that tenure figures sway with the economy, falling during boom years when companies are hiring and rising during tight years when workers have fewer job options.
The 5.4-year median tenure for workers 25 and older in January 2012 was the highest recorded in BLS reports dating back to 1983.
The increase over the last 21 years has been driven by women. In 1991, women 25 and older spent a median 4.3 years with the same company. That rose to 4.4 years in in 1992 and 5.4 years in 2012.
There hasn’t been a sustained change for similarly aged men. They spent a median 5.4 years working for the same company in 1991, 4.9 years in 2002 and 5.5 years in 2012.
Putting all the numbers together, Copeland wrote, "Overall, employee tenure has been remarkably stable since 1983."
He also noted that the number the number of workers staying in what could be considered career jobs has slowly increased. In 1983, 8.9 percent of workers had been with the same company 20 years or more. That rose to 9.5 percent in 1991, and 11 percent in 2012.
Robert Topel, a University of Chicago labor economist, told us in an email that the median tenure statistics Cantor referred to are an imperfect measure of workers’ longevity with employers. The problem, he said, is that it records workers during the middle of employment stints that could last much longer. "The average completed duration of jobs in progress is roughly double the mean," he wrote.
Topel said that in measuring worker longevity, "career jobs are pretty important and not materially different from the past."
The BLS figures show that in 1991, 32.2 percent of workers 25 or older worked for the same company for 10 years or more. That increased to 33.7 percent in 2012.
In 1991 and 2012, slightly more than half of full time workers 55 or older had been with the same company for 10 years or longer.
Cantor said job longevity has diminished over the last 20 years. "It used to be that one could make a career out of working for one company," he said. "Today, the average worker stays at his or her job for barely four years."
The majority leader was referring to 2012 BLS figures that show the median length of time U.S. workers 16 and older had spent with their employer was 4.6 years. The problem with this statistic is that young workers don’t stay at jobs very long and don’t view their labor as careers. The mean tenure of workers 25 and older was 5.4 years.
In either case, tenure has actually increased over the last two decades. It has actually risen by one year if we consider workers 16 and older, and by more than half a year if we consider workers 25 and older.
The bottom line: There’s some accuracy in Cantor’s estimate of how many years workers stay at their jobs. But he’s off target on his his major point -- that longevity at companies has decreased over the last 20 years. All told, we rate Cantor’s statement Mostly False.
The Washington Post, "Full text: Eric Cantor’s ‘Make Life Work’ speech," Feb. 5, 2013.
Email from Megan Whittemore, spokeswoman for Cantor, Feb.7, 2013.
Bureau of Labor Statistics, "Employee Tenure in 2012," Sept. 18, 2012.
Bureau of Labor Statistics, "Employee Tenure in 1998," Sept. 23, 1998.
Interview with Craig Copeland, senior research associate with Employee Benefit Research Institute, Feb. 13, 2013.
EBRI, "EBRI Notes, Employee Tenure Trends," December 2012.
Email interview with Robert Topel, Isidore & Gladys Brown Distinguished Service Professor of Economics at the University of Chicago, Feb. 12 and 13, 2013.
National Bureau of Economic Research, "The Importance of Lifetime Jobs in the U.S. Economy," by Robert Hall, August 1984.
National Bureau of Economic Research, "Has Job Stability Declined Yet? New Evidence for the 1990’s," December 1997.
BLS, "Employment status of the civilian noninstitutionalized population by age, sex, and race," 2012.
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