Job Dating, Not Marriage: The Changing Tenure of the Workforce

Careers today aren’t what they used to be. After serving in the Army and attending college, my father started his career in the early 1960s as a high school English teacher and head coach of the football team. After a few years he decided he needed to make more money, moving his young family to Florida to join Pan American Airlines as a college campus recruiter. His third — and last — job started two years later with a move to Xerox. After 34 years as an HR executive he retired from Xerox in 1999, concluding a four-job, 40-year career. And it’s a work history you likely won’t see ever again.

My father’s “Mad Men” generation did in fact average four jobs/employers in their career. But if you are in your twenties working today, you can expect to hold 10 jobs before you retire. If you also work in California in the tech sector, you can expect to hold 14. One reason is this: It used to be exceptionally rare for companies to lay people off. In fact, in the 1973-1974 recession, only 30 percent of the expenses companies cut came from layoffs. In every single U.S. recession since then, that percentage has grown significantly. During the last recession, 90 percent of the expenses cut were people –8.5 million of them.

It’s no surprise everyone working in America today feels they have to fend for themselves when building their career, that no company will keep them long enough to offer them career growth. So regardless of their industry, workers are always looking for another job. According to our annual Social Recruiting Survey, 61 percent of employees are open to or actively looking for a new job; and more than 30 percent of employers expect new hires to stay just two years or less.

Today, there are not enough qualified people to fill most of the recent and future jobs — because they require some form of college education. Technology, including the Internet and software, is transforming business and work. Economic growth is eliminating low-skilled labor, but creating an explosion of new jobs requiring specialized high-level skills. The automobile industry now says that jobs lost in our most recent recession were typically filled with high school graduates. Just years later, they are hiring workers who have had at least an associate college degree to run the increasingly sophisticated technology on the assembly line.

The problem is that today only 70 percent of our high school freshman will graduate, fewer will attend college, and our colleges are not generating enough science and technology graduates to meet demand. We simply are not allowing enough foreign skilled workers to make up the difference. As a result, only 20 percent of the working population will be qualified for 60 percent of the new jobs generated in the next 10 years. This means that the workers and employers who do have the education and skills to thrive in these new jobs will be in big demand — and they know it. Many have no desire to even work for big companies and instead are seeking self-employment, or entrepreneurism.

Article Continues Below

Employee loyalty has changed. A tumultuous economy sends many into unexpected layoffs, and employees watch this happen to themselves, their co-workers, or their connections at other companies. The life-time employer with the gold-watch job anniversary doesn’t exist anymore. A growing majority of the workforce embraces the new dynamic of regularly changing jobs.

Fast Company recently deemed these workers as “Generation Flux.” It’s a culture shift that can’t be ignored, under-appreciated, or avoided. As recruiters and HR professionals, it’s our job to embrace this change and figure out how to steer this trend to become a positive benefit vs. a negative hurdle. Employers want to entice an employee to stay, and do the best job while they are around. But regardless, they should be prepared for any employee to potentially leave in a few years. Today the thing employers should have a long-term, steady relationship with is recruiting.


13 Comments on “Job Dating, Not Marriage: The Changing Tenure of the Workforce

  1. First, in the old days, college was a privilege and not a right. If we don’t keep insisting on sending everyone to college, maybe the colleges would be better focused on producing “quality” graudates.

    And fault our government for allowing corporations to take their jobs overseas while not providing any financial incentives to them for providing jobs here in the U.S.

    Let’s face it — the U.S. is on a major decline, and it’s our own fault.

    Recommendation to Gen “Flux”, X, Y or Z — how ridiculous it is to assign terminology to people? — to new college grads…don’t work for the man…and get involved in the leadership of our country…if you don’t speak up, then things will only continue to get worse.

  2. GR W, remember, companies like Apple WANTED to build their factories in the US. However, prohibitive environmental policies and a shortage of talent forced them to move to China. Read Walter Isaacsons book on Steve Jobs for a good perspective. As the editor of Time and CNN, he’s not exactly a right wing evangelist.

    Our shortage also isn’t due to a lack of college graduates. Remember, today, half of ALL recent college graduates are unemployed or under-employed. The problem is they’re graduating with useless degrees. We need more S.T.E.M. degrees.

    A solution that would allow companies to keep hiring in the U.S. is to fundamentally change our immigration policy. More than 50% of science and engineering graduates in the U.S. are foreign nationals. We should encourage them to stay and welcome them with open arms.

    In addition, we should quit subsidizing people to attend college to obtain non S.T.E.M related degrees. Do we really need more art history or liberal arts degrees? Really? Most of those kids would be better served to skip the high cost of college altogether rather than obtain a liberal arts degree.

    We do emphasize college too much. Rather, the emphasis should be on S.T.E.M.

  3. Robert:

    You clearly get it. Click this link to my SXSW conference speech.

    I spend much more time on the shortage of S.T.E.M. (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) graduates, and I also show how Apple had no choice but to locate manufacturing in China due to the shortage of STEM graduates here in the U.S. There is a place for Liberal Arts graduates, but that does not alter the fact that we have a serious shortage of STEM graduates. The jobs in the future require formal education, and we simply are not going to meet the demand for trained, educated workers, unfortunately. 60% of the jobs created in the next 10 years will only be doable by 20% of our population.

  4. An excellent, thought provoking description of the way things have changed. I remember trying to explain to my father why I couldn’t just find one company and stay there for life.

    The focus on loyalty is a lens that shines both ways. Yes, employees are less loyal and a statistical majority of them would jump ship in a heartbeat, but haven’t employers in general created this climate? I can remember the day when the loss of a job on a resume was a serious black mark. Today, how many lives have not been touched by a merger, downsizing or layoff. It is not possible to pin 100% of the blame on the employer since business must respond to economic trends and an environment of globalization in order to survive. It is a different world today and is still evolving. Those stuck in the past will be lost.

  5. An attitudinal shift towards permanent employment is being driven not only by the fact that most employers do not believe in the concept of permanent employment, but even more so because a large percentage of the younger members of the workforce value interesting and challenging work assignments and the opportunity for change. The freelance marketplace on Elance is a manifestation of this. Plus the US BLS says that by the end of the decade 50% of the US workforce will be contractors (up from 22% today and 9% in 1989).

  6. @ Chris: Well said. “Loyalty = Cashflow”

    @ GR W: People have said the US has been in decline since before it was the US. I happen to agree with you, but not for the reasons you give.

    @ Robert: If your kid didn’t want to be a STEM (and most kids DON’T- we have a strongly anti-intellectual culture) or open their own business, what would you encourage them to do?

    @ Daniel: I think we need to have a talent-scout system for STEM and other talented kids the way we do with athletes- we’re great at spotting and developing athletic abilities, but not so with other types of abilities.

    @ Thomas: If an employer wants loyalty, then it should offer multi-year, guaranteed-raise, no-discharge-without-cause employment contracts to ALL the people it wants to keep for awhile. Funny how that never seems to be done…

    @ Russ: I fear we are rapidly toward a two-tier society where a decreasing percentage of workers have decently-paid, FT, benefited positions, while an increasing percentage are “able to explore the wonderful possibilities and opportunities of a free-lance lifestyle”.

    Happy Friday,



  7. Here’s my two cents, looking at the situation from an employee perspective, granted this is a little late, but after reading all the comments and the article I felt it necessary to put it in terms of the “youth job seeker.”

    1. Money = retainability, its not just the employees that no longer have loyalty its the employers. Companies no longer offer pensions and planning for retirement rests solely on the employees shoulders. As a good friend of mine in the banking industry once put it, “companies show their loyalty by how well they pay their employees. Companies don’t offer pensions, so the only way your going to prepare for retirement is by saving yourself.” That being said job seekers will go where the money is, because thats the only way to secure a stable future.

    2. I completely agree about the STEM jobs, I have seen many of my peers finishing college with degrees that they persued because it was easy, and puprosefully avoided STEM jobs because they knew they would have to put in more effort and it wouldn’t be a garunteed “easy A.” Like the old addage goes “If it were easy, everyone would have it, or be doing it,” welcome to the majority of unemployed college graduates.

    3. I also agree with the talent scouting idea, in my opinion with the change from college being primarily an instituate of higher education in which people pursued degrees with the focus of attaining a job in their related field to a bloated capitalistic nightmare where for-profit schools pray on the ignorant and the missinformed we only have ourselves to blame. More often then not college students are pursuing degrees with no idea or intention of following the related career field upon completion, leading to a large portion of the work force with a diploma instead of the education or qualifications to enter into a career after college. The message that most students have today is you have to “have a college degree” to be succesfull, where as the message should be “you have to have the qualifications to be succesful.” As many college grads have unfortunately come to find out, a diploma doesn’t mean anything if its not for a job or in a field where your education will have practical application.

    4. Don’t think I need to go into the loyalty again.

    5. We already have entered a two-tier society, it has been publicly expressed on several occasions that the gap between the rich and the poor is the greatest it has ever been since the Great Depression of the 1920’s. The age of the average american blue collar worker making an honest living in the Steel Mills of PA or the Coal Mines of WV are over, and the opportunities for those job seekers with only a high school education making a decent living and being able to retire are over. The division is already there, and America is struggling to catch up!

    Just my two cents! Thanks for reading! Happy Monday!

    – Jordan

  8. Great article and comments. This article so accurately explains how times have changed. Employers; some are not loyal to their employees. Harsh but true. At the end of the day if they have to make cuts in expenses to keep the company going, they go for the “obvious” and look to their highest expense and cut employees. In the latest economic downturn, it has become the norm to cut staffing and re-organize the org chart and make new job descriptions for those who remain. Companies’ mantra soon became “doing more with less”. However, it becomes a double edged sword; when the company needs/wants to expand, they can’t find educated qualified staff that will stay long enough to help their overall company goals.

    Employers have learned to adapt by having one foot on both sides of the fence; working at their current job, but always keeping an eye out for the next best job. Or some have simply decided not to participate in the corporate world and have begun to do consulting or freelance. So now neither the employer nor employee has loyalty to one another now. The double edged sword here is while the employee can now “rule” their own working hours or types of jobs, while commanding a larger salary, they still have to worry about not working; especially when more and more highly technical and educated people start going the consulting or freelance route.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *