Careers in flux? Not so fast

By:

Nov 30, 2017

The economy is changing: workers are now expected to experience an average of seven career changes over their lives.

Or are they?

While the seven-careers narrative is ubiquitous, the data behind such statistics is scarce. Rather than painting a picture of a labor market zooming toward chaos and change, Bureau of Labor Statistics’ studies on job tenure are actually rather boring. In 2016, the median time an employee had worked for their current employer was 4.2 years. A decade ago, it was 4.0 years. And in 1996, it was 3.8 years. For the median employee, the numbers are ever-so-slowly trending toward greater job stability, rather than away from it.

Does this mean that the narrative about workers needing to reskill in order to navigate an ever-more turbulent economy is all hype?

Some suspect so. In 2010, a Wall Street Journal article surmised that the seven-careers-in-a-lifetime narrative was probably promoted by career counselors, and perhaps based on their own biased experience of the labor market. More recently, EdSurge took on the issue this past summer, and theorized that the slight decline in job changes might be due to fear of an increasingly turbulent economy. Workers may be holding onto their jobs longer, valuing stability in what is perceived to be an increasingly unstable labor market.

But we know that 20,000 students graduated bootcamps this year, and most of them were changing careers. A recent Oxford study suggests that nearly half of U.S. jobs are at high risk of automation over the next several decades. The headlines are jammed with stories of factories moving abroad, industries being disrupted, and jobs being destroyed. So what can explain the disconnect between what we are experiencing and what the data tells us?

Let’s look at some possible hypotheses:

Hypothesis 1: It’s all about millenials

Older workers tend to stay in their jobs far longer than younger workers. In 2016, workers over 65 had a median job tenure of 10.3 years, while workers aged 20-24 had a median job tenure of only 1.3 years. It makes sense median job tenure would increase as the proportion of older workers increases.

But that doesn’t mean that the economy is moving at a dramatically faster pace for millenials. Median job tenure for 20-24 year olds was 1.3 years in 1987. It hasn’t changed at all.

Conclusion: Hypothesis rejected

Hypothesis 2: The turbulence is driven by certain sectors, like technology

Perhaps it is the case that most of the economy has maintained its old patterns, but more cutting edge fields are seeing more labor market churn. These industries might end up being a canary in the coal mine for the rest of the economy.

But here too, the data doesn’t quite bear it out. The last decade hasn’t seen significant changes in job tenure by industry.

Conclusion: Hypothesis rejected

Hypothesis 3: The rise of the gig economy is distorting the picture

Job tenure might be rising or stable, but jobs themselves might be on the decline as more workers move into freelance work or self-employment. If that’s the case, then the statistics might not be picking up big changes in the labor market.

But it’s not clear that the gig economy is growing fast enough to make that big of an impact on the numbers. In fact, self-employment might actually be trending down—especially for younger workers. But it’s also not clear that the official statistics are capturing the numbers of self-employed and contingent workers accurately.

Conclusion: Hypothesis not rejected

Hypothesis 4: It’s not that workers are changing jobs, it’s that jobs are changing

Could it be that while jobs are more stable than the headlines might lead us to believe, that the nature of the work we do in those jobs is changing rapidly? The World Economic Forum’s Future of Jobs report notes that, “technological disruptions such as robotics and machine learning—rather than completely replacing existing occupations and job categories—are likely to substitute specific tasks previously carried out as part of these jobs, freeing workers up to focus on new tasks and leading to rapidly changing core skill sets in these occupations.”

In other words, the ground may be shifting under our feet, but in more subtle ways than the seven-career-changes-in-a-lifetime narrative leads us to expect. Lifelong learning is essential to stay in our jobs, not necessarily because we are changing jobs constantly. This also means that reskilling isn’t just for people changing jobs—it’s essential for everyone.

Conclusion: Hypothesis not rejected

What do you think?

What other hypotheses should we explore? What do you make of the gap between the narrative around a turbulent economy and data that shows labor market stability? Where does reskilling, upskilling, and lifelong learning fit into the picture? Write your thoughts in the comments, or send us an email!

Alana leads the Institute’s higher education research and works to find solutions for a more affordable system that better serves both students and employers. In this role, Alana analyzes disruptive forces changing the higher education landscape.