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October 1984, Vol. 107, No. 10
and job tenure in 1983
Intergenerational and intragenerational upward occupational mobility is an accepted part of American life. Also commonly accepted is a picture of the U.S. labor market in which workers are highly mobile in general. Numerous books and articles describe Americans' extensive "job hopping" and geographic mobility. American workers are seen as changing occupations and employers in far higher proportions than their counterparts in other industrial nations.1
This view of widespread job mobility is supported by a number of developments which tend to hold down the measures of average tenure in the United States, particularly in comparison with Japan and other industrial nations. These developments primarily are related to rapid increases in the U.S. population and labor force. For example, over the past decade, millions of American women have entered the labor force each year. Moreover, the American work force has been boosted by high rates of migration (both legal and illegal) into the United States. As a result, employment has grown by 20 million since the early 1970's. And with all of these new workers in the labor force, it is not too surprising that the overall measure of job tenure for the United States is relatively low.
Yet, a detailed look at the data on tenure shows that a large proportion of American workers apparently spend most of their "mature" worklife with the same employer and in the same type of work.2 Jobs held by middle-aged workers appear highly stable. New data from the Current Population Survey seem to support the contention that mature American workers, on average, show substantial job stability, thus making them not too unlike the workers of Japan.3
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1 See Massonri Hashimoto and John Raisian. "Employment Tenure and On-the-Job Training: Firm Size Differences in Japan and the United States," January 1984; and The New York Times, June 17, 1984. "America's Astounding Job Machine," quoting Orley C. Ashenfelter on the high mobility of American versus British workers. For a discussion on occupational mobility in Britain also see David Metcalf, Low Pay, Occupational Mobility, and Minimum-Wage Policy in Britain (American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research, 1981).
2 More detailed data on job tenure and occupational mobility are available from the Office of Employment and Unemployment Statistics, Bureau of Labor Statistics.
3 Robert E. Hall, "The Importance of Lifetime Jobs in the U.S. Economy," American Economic Review, September 1982. Hall also cites his earlier work based on data for older men from the National Longitudinal Survey of Work Experience, as well as related work, for example, George A. Akerlof and Brian Maihn (American Economic Review, December 1981) and Kazuo Koike (Japanese Economic Studies, Fall 1978). The Koike article (as cited by Hall) concludes that tenure of 15 years or longer is more common in the United States than in Japan. For occupational mobility in Japan, see Herman Kahn, The Emerging Japanese Superstate, Challenge and Response (Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1970). Examining employment practices of large companies, such as the "lifetime contract" made by the employee with the firm, Kahn also notes the high mobility of workers within firms and between firms of a conglomerate, and observes that in terms of worker mobility the U.S. economy in many ways is much more rigid than the Japanese.
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