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With Fewer Opportunities, Americans Are Staying at Jobs Longer

With the labor market still on the ropes, Americans who have jobs are hunkering down and staying at them longer.

Erik Snyder | Lifesize | Getty Images

The median length of time people have been at their jobs is 5.4 years, compared with 5.2 years in 2010 and 5 years nearly three decades ago, according to new research conducted by the Employee Benefit Research Institute.

It's not that we love our jobs so much, said Craig Copeland, the study's author and senior research associate at EBRI. "It seems like people who have jobs in this economy are holding onto them if they have a choice," he said. When the economy is thriving, people switch jobs more often in search of better pay and benefits or more room for advancement. In this economy, we're happy just to have our jobs.

The group's research found that a once-sharp disparity between men and women's job tenures has now entirely vanished. While male workers' median job tenure slipped from 5.9 years in 1983 to 5.5 years today, the median tenure of female workers climbed from 4.2 years to 5.4 years over the same time period.

Copeland said there are several reasons for this. Traditionally male-dominated professions in both blue- and white-collar sectors, like construction and finance, bore the brunt of job losses during the recession. Union jobs typically held by men are on the decline, and a growing number of female-headed households have contributed to their rise in the workforce.

"There's a lot of evidence that female labor market attachment goes up in a counter-cyclical fashion" with male employment, said Jeff Strohl, director of research at Georgetown University's Center on Education and the Workforce. Male unemployment can prompt partners to get a job or stay at the one they have for a longer period of time. "You have to have some sense of financial security inside of a family unit," he said.

Today, Americans enter and leave the workforce later in life. "The career cycle has been changing over time. We've moved away from the high school economy," Strohl said. Now, more people enroll in college before starting their careers. "Real labor market entry is 22, 23." On the opposite end of the spectrum, more workers are delaying retirement — a long-term trend Strohl said was exacerbated by the recession, when many workers saw their retirement nest eggs shrink.

EBRI's research also debunks the myth that a one-job career was the norm in previous generations. Today, male workers between the ages of 55 and 64 stay at a job for 10.7 years at the median, an increase from 9.5 years in 2006. Even when the median job tenure for this age group peaked in 1983, it amounted to 15.3 years — hardly a career-length stint.

Only around 20 percent of workers aged 60 to 64 have been at their jobs for 25 years, Copeland said. That's not many, but it's a drop of only around 3 percentage points since 1983. "The majority of people do change their jobs," he said, "either by choice or being forced to."

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