EBRI Issue Brief

Trends in Employee Tenure, 1983–2022

Jan 19, 2023 14  pages


This study examines data on employee tenure — the amount of time an individual has been with his or her current employer — of American workers. It uses U.S. Census Bureau data from the Current Population Survey (CPS), including the most recent January CPS data, to examine the tenure with current employers of wage and salary workers from 1983–2022.

While some believe current American workers change jobs more frequently than was the case for past generations, the data on employee tenure show that career jobs (individuals holding only one job for their entire career) never actually existed for most workers and continue not to exist for most workers. Furthermore, when the labor market has been the strongest, such as in 2022, the tenure of workers has tended to be shorter, as more individuals start new jobs by being newly employed or by changing jobs due to more opportunities from a tight labor market.

Here are the key findings:

  • Over the past 40 (or nearly 40 years) years, the median tenure of all wage and salary workers ages 25 or older has stayed at approximately five years.
  • This overall trend masks a small but significant decrease in median tenure among men and an offsetting increase in median tenure among women.
  • The fact that the gender-distinct trends have generally moved in opposite directions has led to overall constancy in the tenure statistics. However, the median tenures by gender have been moving together in recent years.
  • The distribution of tenure levels among workers ages 20 or older had been moving toward longer tenures until the most recent years. In 2020 and 2022, the share of workers with the shortest tenure levels increased, while the share with the longest tenure levels also increased. Those with the middle tenure levels showed decreases.
  • The difference between private-sector and public-sector workers’ tenure distributions is quite striking. While private-sector employers in general have been able to maintain a near-constant and small percentage of very long-term employees (25 or more years of tenure), public-sector employers saw this group grow significantly through 2004 before trending down through 2022. Consequently, public-sector employers have seen a significant share of their most experienced workers retire or otherwise leave their jobs.
  • These tenure results indicate that, historically, most workers have changed jobs during their working careers, and all evidence suggests that they will continue to do so in the future. This persistence of job changing over working careers has several important implications — potentially reduced or no defined benefit plan payments due to vesting schedules, reduced defined contribution plan savings, lump-sum distributions that can occur at job change, and public policy issues both through lower retirement incomes of the elderly population and the loss of experienced, public-sector workers.
Thus, it is clear from these results even with the up and downs in median tenure that workers will be faced with many decision points about their retirement benefits along their career paths, as workers will most likely not be with one company their entire career. The decisions made regarding retirement benefits will greatly impact their retirement security. As a consequence, employers need to account for these job changes when designing or providing education about retirement benefits.