What does your job tenure say about you?

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?

More about...Career, Planning

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Mr. Frugalwoods
Mr. Frugalwoods
5 years ago

I think tenure should also look at the _position_ a person was doing at a company.

I’ve been working for the same company for almost 8 years. But in those 8 years I’ve worked 4 different positions, each with increasing responsibility.

If you stay at the same company for a long period of time you need to show your ambition and skill increases through internal promotion. If your employer can do that, then great! If not, then you need to look elsewhere.

Kate
Kate
5 years ago

I would agree with this. I’ve been with my company for 8 years now, in 5 different positions (each with more responsibility, and in 3 different work locations). I would say that within my company, this is fairly typical.

But I am starting to get that itch. I think it’s the 8-10 year itch. If I stay here much longer, I wonder if I’m going to become an old stick in the mud, and lull myself into complacency thinking that every company does things the way mine does. So I’m starting to look further afield.

Jeff
Jeff
5 years ago

Yep, to me that looks better than someone who did the same job at 3 different companies over 8 years.

Beth
Beth
5 years ago

IMHO, you can’t worry too much about the numbers because what’s a pro to one recruiter may be a con to another — and if you’re a good fit for a job, you can elaborate in the interview. The key is to figure out what potential employers might object to on your resume and be ready to discuss them in an interview. It’s a culture thing and it works both ways. If you want to dedicate yourself to a company with opportunities for advancement, a high employee turnover is a red flag. (it happens a lot in the publishing industry,… Read more »

Paul
Paul
5 years ago

I’ve swapped states, careers, and jobs simultaneously three times in my 8.5 working years. It is disruptive, but a good experience every so often. Moving up in an organization is a good reason to stay however. If titles, compensation, and responsibility are being liberally granted, I would stick around. Eventually those dry up though. At some point, you will be looking at your boss thinking that he/she has the job that you need next, and if they aren’t looking to move out of the way, it might be time for a lateral transfer to a company with less in front… Read more »

JoeM
JoeM
5 years ago

I can see it both ways. I graduated in 2011 and this is the longest job I’ve had to date – 16 months. The first was 12, the second was 13. The first change was based on a move (from Chicago to back home), the second due to a desired job and career change (went back to doing what I did in my first job). I will also be in the job market again once I finish my second degree in accounting in 9-12 months. Then I hope to settle down in my chosen field. The first few jobs outside… Read more »

Cath
Cath
5 years ago

I tend to switch jobs every 1.5-2 years, but it’s mostly defensive. Either I’m sick of it, or there’s trouble coming–I’ve been laid off twice and twice left right before layoffs were announced. And I’m only 33!

patrick
patrick
5 years ago

The working world is too disruptive. It always has been – at least in the last 25 years. Tenure exists in universities. In my 30 years of working, I’ve always looked for new opportunities, whether with the same company or another. Some of us like to move around and try new things, because the same role can get stale after awhile. More money is nice, but that’s not a guarantee, or a route to happiness. Salary is one factor in happiness. Others are work/life balance, commute, working conditions, challenging and interesting work… Lifetime employment and tenure sound like fairy tales… Read more »

Jeff
Jeff
5 years ago
Reply to  patrick

“More money is nice, but that’s not a guarantee, or a route to happiness. Salary is one factor in happiness. Others are work/life balance, commute, working conditions, challenging and interesting work…” I once turned down a 10% raise because I didn’t want the job assignment that came with it, I knew it would likely make me miserable (especially relocating to the middle of nowhere for 2 years.) I was honest that if I was that easily motivated by such an amount I could probably find another job in this same area that would pay me as much or more. I… Read more »

Brianne
Brianne
5 years ago

I’ve been with my company for 12.5 years, first job after college. While I’ve been here, I have had four job titles, each with additional responsibility. I’ve also obtained my P.E. and completed a graduate degree. Maybe I’m complacent, but it’s a small company with a flexible schedule, good benefits, and decent (if a little low) pay.

Maybe I’d make more money if I found a new position somewhere else, but there’s a lot to be said for comfort.

Mike in NH
Mike in NH
5 years ago
Reply to  Brianne

I really hope we aren’t in a place where moving up 3 or 4 times over the course of 13 years makes you a complacent employee, if it does then I guess I am as well since my career has followed a similar path. My original goals when I entered the workforce after college were to make enough so that I wouldn’t have to worry about money like my parents did and to be able to do it in a way that didn’t require being miserable and working 70 hours a week. Through hard work meeting opportunities (my version of… Read more »

Lucille
Lucille
5 years ago
Reply to  Mike in NH

I wanted to agree with Mike in NH. I have been with my employer for 25 years. In that time, I have had 4 different positions (one in management) and my current position I was promoted to senior level a few years back. Sometimes I wonder if I’m complacent for not moving on, even though there are no further promotion opportunities unless I go back into management. Still, I’m good at what I do, I believe I bring a good value to the organization, I think I’m well-compensated, and I have a flexible schedule. Are there some other perks missing?… Read more »

Emily @ Simple Cheap Mom
Emily @ Simple Cheap Mom
5 years ago

Times are definitely changing. I was at one job where it was expected that almost everyone starting out would be gone in 3 or 4 years.

Marie
Marie
5 years ago

This topic is why I was infuriated by the mandatory job coaching during my unemployment. I was required to sit down with a state employee who critiqued my resume, and the woman had no understanding of writing/editing careers. She simply could not grasp the concept of freelance work. She ranted at me for a half hour, using the words “job hopper” and “dependable” about a dozen times. No matter how I tried to explain that nearly half my job experience was for individual contracted assignments, she just kept shaking her head and telling me I needed to “stick with something… Read more »

Beth
Beth
5 years ago
Reply to  Marie

Your comment made me laugh! I can totally see that.

I had one recruiter who couldn’t wrap her head around the work I did in grad school. It looked like I couldn’t stick with a job because I didn’t stay with a position for more than four months. That’s normal in academia around here. Thankfully, I can leave it off my resume now.

Mary Grace @ Investment Total
Mary Grace @ Investment Total
5 years ago

This is a very useful content. Especially for those employees who are looking to get some “raise”. They should ask their selves first, if they are deserving to get a raise.

No Nonsense Landlord
No Nonsense Landlord
5 years ago

I have been at this job for 11 years. My next closest was in the USAF, where I was forced to stay.

As a person get older, and more comfortable, they seem to settle in. Especially as they get closer to FIRE, like me.

Jeff
Jeff
5 years ago

On LinkedIn I see some people whom I graduated with who are already at their 3rd company in only 3 years. I know that some people change jobs often while they’re young chasing big increases but this is ridiculous. Not only do they look like they’re fickle job hoppers but I wonder how long before they end up pricing themselves out of the market by becoming seen as too expensive for their experience level, it’s not like they’ve stayed anywhere long enough to become really proficient at much.

sarah
sarah
5 years ago
Reply to  Jeff

I imagine it depends on the field. In mine, 1-2 years for the first couple jobs out of grad school is considered normal.

I can see both sides. I’ve changed jobs more often than I’ve liked due to moving a lot and also starting 2 jobs that ended up being nightmarish. Some interviewers seems skeptical of the short stays but most seem interested in how varied my experience has been. I haven’t had trouble getting jobs.

Even Steven
Even Steven
5 years ago

I think companies have realized over time that a person working the same job for 30 years is a thing of the past, so they have moved to more of a career path that encourages movement within the company. This keeps costs lower for the company and also the employee interested.

Lucille
Lucille
5 years ago
Reply to  Even Steven

I understand the idea of a career path, and that makes sense. To me, that’s growth.

But jumping from job to job (same job, different company) every couple of years seems really disruptive to me. I would wonder why a person kept skipping around.

That probably makes me sound old, LOL.

Dennis Frailey
Dennis Frailey
5 years ago

I worked for the same company for 36 years. Before that I worked for a university for 7 years (I left after I earned tenure, much to their surprise – I saw more opportunities for growth outside of the university environment). But within each employer I changed jobs about every 2-3 years or even less. The continuity was very beneficial, as outlined below. In the 36-year case, the company was a large, high-tech organization that offered a lot of opportunities for me to advance into different and more challenging jobs as time went on. There were many times during that… Read more »

dd_jr
dd_jr
5 years ago

I’ve worked 2 jobs since graduating from school, one for 3 years and one for 6 years. In my extremely anecdotal experience, sticking it out in one place pays off if you are able to show your mettle to your co-workers and bosses. I’ve gotten so much respect by being dependable and consistently executing in 6 years. This has led to higher salary and professional satisfaction. It would be extremely difficult for me to be in the same position professionally if I had switched jobs a couple times over the past year, trust and respect takes a long time to… Read more »

Dennis Frailey
Dennis Frailey
5 years ago

One other point about staying vs switching. Some people are the kind whose competence and capabilities are obvious (or at least appear to be obvious), whereas others are the kind where you learn their value by working with them and learning what they can do. Or as one mentor of mine said, “leaving good tracks”. If you’re the second type of individual, it may be beneficial to stay with the same company, where they have learned your value and ask for you when new projects come along. Of course it has to be a big enough company to provide the… Read more »

Sam
Sam
5 years ago

I feel sticking to a job is worthwhile only if you are growing both in terms of capabilities and rewards. It is great to work for an organisation provided the growth is consistent. Sticking to same position with minuscule increments is just like holding a loss making stock saying that it is now my long term strategy.

k
k
4 years ago

Yes I’m getting back into the workforce amd just learned about this tenure thing. I’m taking jobs and leaving because of one thing or another. This last service I was with told me the company had a problem with tenure. I never heard this!
So how do you get around this

R Peterson
R Peterson
2 years ago

I may be out of the norm here but after 36 years tenure at a company I felt exactly as it described the pro’s and con’s of this article. I had gained lots of experience an knew my job although it was a constant new adventure. One of the most disruptive things I experienced with this job was change of management structure. When you had one manager figured out he would leave then a whole different set of guidelines with the next. There was no constancy. While i know they had the same outline which was to be profitable, one… Read more »

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