This article is by staff writer Honey Smith.

Recently, I wrote about networking strategies that can help advance your career, and that got me to wondering what a “typical” career looks like these days. How have careers been affected by the Great Recession? Are people able to stay in a job and retire if they love it, or is the job market more chaotic than that? And what does it say about you either way? For instance, are there certain features of someone’s resume that might identify them as a baby boomer, Gen X, or millennial? Could that even pose an advantage or disadvantage for them?

Lifetime careers and pensions have gone the way of the dodo

People often fall prey to the “rosy retrospection” bias or fallacy, where they have a tendency to remember the past as being better than it actually was. So while your parents’ or grandparents’ generation would likely have said differently at the time, if you ask folks today about those past decades, they would tell you that it was a stable time when it wasn’t too hard to stay with one employer for all or the majority of their careers and retire with a fat pension.

Whether or not that was actually people’s lived experience, it is generally acknowledged that the retirement outlook for 20-somethings today is quite different. It is expected now that individuals will hold numerous jobs throughout their lifetimes. In fact, people may have not only different jobs, but different careers over the course of their working years.

Note: I’m defining “job” here as a particular position with a particular company and “career” as a job or series of jobs in the same industry or job-type. Using this definition, someone who went from being a bank teller to a similar position at another bank would be staying on one career path. Someone who went from being a bank teller to being a real estate agent would be switching not only jobs, but careers. A bank teller who was promoted to a position where s/he supervised all the tellers at a particular branch would also be switching careers, even if s/he remained at the same company. It’s imprecise; but in the absence of rigid definitions, it’s the best I can do.

So if 50 years and a gold watch aren’t the standard anymore, with what have they been replaced? To try and understand that, I turned to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). According to their website, “the Bureau of Labor Statistics of the U.S. Department of Labor is the principal Federal agency responsible for measuring labor market activity, working conditions, and price changes in the economy.”

Tenure is trending up

When it comes to the number of jobs held throughout a working lifetime, the data are fuzzy. The BLS admits that “To determine the number of jobs in a lifetime, one would need data from a longitudinal survey that tracks the same respondents over their entire working lives. So far, no longitudinal survey has ever tracked respondents for that long.” However, they have assembled some data on baby boomers and, according to their study, “younger baby boomers held an average of 11.3 jobs from ages 18 to 46.”

This means that over a 28-year period, this group switched jobs, on average, every two and a half years. The BLS estimates that tenure (the length of time a worker stays with one employer) has been trending up over the past decade. They attribute some of this trend to the aging of the workforce because tenure tends to increase with age — that is, younger employees switch jobs more frequently than older employees do.

Obviously, tenure also tends to vary by industry, and I think most of us would argue that the Great Recession has led to longer tenure. The people that were lucky enough to get or keep their jobs when the economy tanked seem to have been a little gun-shy and may be reluctant to leave their current positions. When you are changing careers, the grass isn’t always greener, after all. However, I’m wondering what message of tenure length sends to potential future employers.

When is tenure length a resume boost and when does it count against you?

There are a number of ways to view someone’s tenure length, whether it be longer or shorter than average. For example, if someone has a long tenure length (say, five years or more), a potential employer might assume the following about that individual:

  • Pro: They are dedicated to their position and/or employer.

  • Con: They may not be abreast of current industry trends or technology.

  • Pro: They are reliable and competent. (After all, their employer could have terminated them if they weren’t doing a good job.)

  • Con: They may not be ambitious or flexible enough to take on new challenges.

On the other hand, the following assumptions could be made about someone with a “short” tenure length (say, two years or less):

  • Pro: They are ambitious and hard-working (assuming their career trajectory involves promotional moves).

  • Con: They are fickle and don’t value loyalty.

  • Pro: Their skill set is up to date.

  • Con: They are prone to interpersonal difficulties or conflict.

What pros and cons do you associate with a tenure length that is longer or shorter than average? What industries do you think might have a shorter or longer average tenure, and why? And, more importantly, how can you take this knowledge into consideration when it comes to playing the office politics game and making decisions that impact your own career and ability to gain employment?

Strategizing your tenure length

On the one hand, using tenure length as the sole barometer for deciding whether or not to get a new job is silly; however, depending on your industry, it may be an important factor to consider. The longer you stay in the same job, the harder it may be to successfully ask for a raise. If your job description isn’t changing, how can you demonstrate that the value you provide to the company is increasing? Not all employers provide cost of living adjustments (COLA) and, even if they do, their effect on your compensation is only intended to adjust your salary for inflation. It is not a merit increase. You may be able to negotiate for perks if a raise is off the table, but even that may only get you so far for so long.

And I would argue further that job searching can be divided into offensive and defensive categories. Someone on the offensive might be seeking greater responsibility and compensation (i.e., they’re ambitious). Someone on the defensive might know their current job is in jeopardy or demonstrate some of the four signs you’re over your job and need to do something about it. However, I would also argue that potential employers will respond better to an applicant they perceive as being on the offensive and that job seekers may want to present themselves accordingly.

What is your average tenure length, and what factors contributed to your tenure? Are you an offensive or defensive job seeker?

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