The End of ”Lifetime Jobs”: A Myth Debunked

We are often told that there are no more ''jobs for life'' and that we have to adjust to jobs of shorter duration. But research by Simon Burgess and Hedley Rees, published in a recent issue of the Economic Journal, reveals that there is little evidence of such changes in the UK labour market.

These researchers found that in 1975, the average length of job tenure for men was 10.4 years and 6.3 for women. Nearly two decades later in 1992, the average for men was 9.5 years, a decline of only 8.5 %, while for women it was unchanged.

Burgess and Rees used an annual series of surveys, which asked employees how long they had been with their present employer. The resulting figures provide scant evidence that the pattern of a typical working life has changed fundamentally, suggesting that popular assumptions about a transformation in the nature of jobs are misleading. The figures indicate that:

  • On average, people hold their jobs for a long time. Since the data relate to the length of time people have been in their present jobs so far, estimates of the chance of them continuing in those jobs can be used to calculate the average completed job tenure. In 1990,this was about 18 years for men and 12 years for women. Such numbers suggest that most people can expect a stable long-term job at some stage of their careers.

There are a lot of people with short tenure jobs and a lot of people with very long job tenures. This was particularly marked for men, with 29% having completed tenures of less than five years in 1990, and 24% with jobs lasting more than 30 years. If jobs lasting 20 years or more can be labelled ''lifetime jobs'', it is clear that the UK labour market is still capable of offering such jobs to 45% of all male workers.

While a substantial proportion of the workforce has jobs that only last a very short time, this has been the case since at least 1975. There does not seem to have been any substantial increase in the number of jobs of short duration. In fact, there was a gradual increase in job duration as the labour market worsened from 1979-83, a subsequent fall as times improved through to 1990 and a slight increase in 1991-2. Average job duration tends to rise in recessions because fewer people are hired, so there are fewer people who have been working in their jobs for a short time. In addition, those who are in work tend to remain in their jobs for longer.

Analysing the changes by age shows much the same pattern of average job durations across age groups. Hence the relative constancy of these averages cannot be explained by suggesting that the rate of job changes was offset by changes in the proportion of young and old workers.

Burgess and Rees conclude that while we may be on the verge of a new world where most people''s jobs don''t last very long, there is little evidence of such changes during the 1980s and early 1990s. The UK labour market still offers ''lifetime jobs'' to a substantial proportion of its workforce.

''Job Tenure in Britain 1975-92'' by Simon Burgess and Hedley Rees is published in the March 1996 issue of the Economic Journal. Burgess and Rees are both at the University of Bristol.