A few weeks ago, Alex Usher drew my attention to this post by the Pew Research Center, on job tenure patterns of 18-35 year-olds in the United States. The takeaway point was that, contrary to an oft-repeated narrative about the "new gig economy", job tenure patterns among millennials resemble those of the generation previous.
Of course, Canada is not the United States: what do job tenure data look like for younger cohorts up here? It turns out that this may be one of those rare cases where Canadian data are richer than American data: the Labour Force Survey has been asking about job tenure since 1976, and we can focus on more tightly-defined age groups.
I've calculated three job-tenure measures:
- Median job tenure
- Proportion with job tenure of one year or less
- Proportion with job tenure of five years or more
These are broken down by age group (25-29 and 30-35), by sex, and by educational attainment (high-school graduates and university graduates). I've also limited attention to full-time workers, and excluded the self-employed. I've put everything in an excel file you can download here. The excel file also includes average job tenures, but I won't be talking about them here.
I'll start with 25-29 year olds. Here are median job tenures for both sexes, broken down by educational attainment:
Since university graduates enter the labour force later than do high-school graduates, it's not surprising that high-school graduates in their late 20s typically have longer job tenures. I don't see a secular trend in median job tenures among university graduates, but there looks to be a slight decline among high-school graduates.
But I wouldn't be quick to conclude that high-school graduates in their late 20s in were better able to find steady jobs in 2016 than 20 or 30 years ago: those increases in median job tenures in the mid-80s and mid-90s occurred during recessions and record-high youth unemployment rates. I suspect that what was really going on was that young workers were clinging to jobs that they didn't particularly like, because the prospect of finding a better one was so bleak.
Let's break these down by sex. High-school graduates first.
There's not a lot of difference here between men and women. Here are the proportions with job tenures of less than one year:
This seems to be telling the same story. Again, the lower numbers in the 80s and 90s probably reflect weak job creation, and not stable employment: fewer workers had short job tenures, because there weren't that many new jobs.
And here are the proportions of people with job tenures of five years or more:
Once again, those increases in the 80s and 90s correspond to weak labour markets. I don't see good, stable jobs there; I see people clinging to whatever work they had.
On to university graduates aged 25-29. Here are median job tenures
I don't see a secular trend there; all I see is that counter-cyclical pattern in job tenures.
The proportion of university graduates aged 25-29 with job tenures of less than one year:
This ... looks like noise around a constant. No trend, and it's hard to pick out the business cycle.
The proportion of university graduates aged 25-29 with job tenures of five or more years:
Unsurprisingly, these rates are less than half of those for those with a high-school diploma, and again, you see that counter-cyclical pattern of spikes when labour markets are soft.
Okay, so much for those aged 25-29. I don't see much of a downward secular trend in job tenure measures for university graduates, and much of the downward trend among high-school graduates is probably explained by the supply side of the market, not the demand side. Younger workers in the 80s and 90s had longer job tenures, but that may have simply reflected an inability find better jobs than the ones they already had.
On to 30-34 year olds. Here are median job tenures:
All I can see here are those counter-cyclical swings: median tenures increasing during recessions and declining during recoveries. I'm really having a hard time with the idea that longer median job tenures are a sign of a healthy labour market. And there's not much to choose between current median tenures and those observed 40 years ago.
Again, high-school graduates first. Here are median job tenures, broken down by sex:
What's interesting here is the gap between men and women. Median job tenures for men and women high-school graduates in their late 20s look almost the same throughout the sample. But when they reach their early 30s, there's a huge gap in the first part of the sample - and then convergence. My first-pass conjecture is that this is a story about trends in child-bearing and child care/home production, but I don't feel confident enough about the topic to explore this point any further.
Here you do see a more pronounced secular decline for men's job tenures, albeit complicated by the counter-cyclical pattern noted earlier.
The proportion of high-school graduates aged 30-34 with job tenures less than one year:
I don't see much of a trend for women, and the lower rates among men in the earlier part of the sample could be a reflection of slow job creation.
Proportion of high-school graduates with job tenures of five years or more:
This basically looks like the chart for median job tenures.
And now median job tenures for university graduates:
The counter-cyclical pattern is particularly striking here. And as was the case for high-school graduates, you can see a secular decline for men, but not for women.
The proportion of university graduates aged 30-34 with job tenures of one year or less:
No secular trend jumps out at me here.
Proportion of university graduates in their early 30s with job tenures of 5 years or more
Again, to the extent that there is a secular decline, it's confined to men.
And that's it.
Here's what I get out of all this:
- It's not clear to me that longer job tenures are a necessarily a sign of a strong labour market generating stable jobs. The counter-cyclical patterns suggest that longer job tenures may be a reflection of an inability or unwillingness to find a better job.
- You can see some evidence of a a secular trend towards shorter job tenures, but only for men.
- I don't see how you can tell a compelling story of a fundamental transformation towards a 'gig' economy in which more and more people are working at a series of jobs at the beginning of their careers using job tenure data.