Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Look at the data

Daniel Gross' "Economic View" column in the New York Times

Yet labor economists, who prefer sifting through reams of yesterday’s data to parsing today’s headlines, detect a seemingly counterintuitive trend. During the last few decades, job stability and job tenure for the typical worker don’t seem to have changed much, if at all.

Ann Stevens, an associate professor of economics at the University of California, Davis, has looked through a time series — interviews with men between the ages of 58 and 62 conducted by the Bureau of Labor Statistics and other research groups at intervals from 1969 to 2002.

She found that in 1969, the average tenure of the longest job a man had held in his career was 21.9 years. In 2002, the figure was only marginally smaller: 21.4 years. In both 1969 and 2002, about half of those interviewed had spent more than two decades with a single employer.

“I’m not convinced there has been a dramatic change,” said Professor Stevens, who presented her findings in a National Bureau of Economic Research working paper.

That conclusion may seem surprising, given the heightened media and political attention to outsourcing, corporate overhauls and layoffs — and given the peculiar dynamics of the late 1990’s, when low unemployment, significant job growth and technological advances led many people to switch jobs voluntarily.

“In those years, companies couldn’t hold on to workers,” said David Neumark, a professor of economics at the University of California, Irvine.

Recent evidence indicates that jobs aren’t any more or less disposable than they were in the past. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median job tenure for all workers at their current jobs rose to 4 years in January 2004 from 3.5 years in 1983. In the same period, the percentage of workers older than 25 with job tenure of more than 10 years fell only modestly, to 30.6 percent from 31.9 percent.

But there are subtle shifts underneath the headline numbers, says Steven J. Davis, the William H. Abbott professor of international business and economics at the University of Chicago. As they have become more entrenched in the work force, women have seen their average job tenure rise, to 3.8 years in 2004 from 3.1 years in 1983. In the same period, the figure declined for men — particularly for those ages 45 to 54, whose average tenure in 2004 was 9.67 years, down from 12.8 years in 1983.

Job tenure has declined “among both blue-collar and white-collar male workers,” Professor Davis said. “White-collar jobs, which were historically dominated by college-educated men, are no longer quite as secure as they were a generation ago.”

So what accounts for the public concern over job instability? Professor Davis notes that job stability at publicly held companies — large, brand-name businesses like Intel that make news when they restructure — has decreased markedly. “But such companies only account for about one-third of all business employment,” he said. Among privately held companies — a much larger sector — job stability has actually been on the rise in recent years.

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