January 2014

Job promotion in midcareer: gender, recession, and “crowding”


Table 1. Characteristics of promotions at the current job, 1996–2010 (Percent)
1996200620101996 vs. 20062006 vs. 2010

Workers promoted (number)


Workers promoted


Increase in job responsibilities


Promoted workers


Workers who were not promoted (but had a position change)

Increase in real wage(1)

Reason for promotion(2)





Job performance




Change of ownership


Company growth

Company laid off others


Believe that more promotions are possible


Reason for belief that no more promotions are possible


No further promotion potential


Waiting for someone to leave


Need additional training

Company reorganization

Change of ownership



(1) Data are shown only for workers who have not changed employers since the date of last interview.

(2) Respondents could choose all applicable categories.

Note: |t|-statistics are generated with the use of the svy and lincom commands in STATA 11.2 with sampling weights.

Source: NLSY79 and authors' calculations.

Turning to results, table 1 shows that promotion probabilities declined over the decade from 1996 to 2006 by about 6 percentage points for both men and women.9 This is not unexpected: as workers age, they move up the career ladder and enjoy fewer opportunities for further promotion. From 2006 to 2010, there was an additional reduction in promotions—a reduction of about 4 percentage points for women and about 6 percentage points for men—which likely reflects the impact of the Great Recession. (See below for further discussion of recession effects.)

Compared with promotions in 1996, a higher percentage of promotions in later years came with increased job responsibilities. For workers reporting a change in position but no promotion, job responsibilities also increased, although at a rate that was roughly half that of promoted workers. For their part, wages increased as a result of promotions, but not in all cases. In 1996, three-quarters or more of promoted workers experienced real-wage increases as a result of promotions. By 2006, this ratio had declined by 15 percentage points for women and by 6 percentage points for men. The share of workers receiving increases in real wages actually rose modestly in 2010.

Starting in 1996, survey respondents have been asked about the reason(s) for their promotion. The NLSY79 identifies seven such reasons: “reorganization of the company,” “change in ownership,” “company growth,” “others are laid off,” “my job performance,” “it was automatic,” “I requested it,” and a composite “other reasons” category. Most promotions were self-attributed to job performance, with slightly more men than women citing performance as the primary reason for their promotion. Company growth, reorganization, and worker requests were the other main reasons cited. Between 1996 and 2006, there were a number of significant shifts in the reasons for promotion reported by men and women. For women, job performance, company growth, and the layoff of others all declined in importance; for men, the role of company growth diminished. After 2006, automatic promotions for women declined by more than half; however, no other significant shifts in promotion reasons can be observed.

When asked about their perceptions of the prospects for further promotion, a little more than 70 percent of respondents gave optimistic responses in 1996. This percentage declined over the next decade, significantly so for women but not for men. Surprisingly, the percentage for women increased over the next 4 years (i.e., the interval encompassing the Great Recession), but the shift was statistically insignificant. This shift might reflect a greater displacement of women and their relocation to jobs for which they were overqualified; overqualification, in turn, presents greater prospects for promotion. Against this interpretation is the fact that the recession was marked by higher unemployment for men than for women, at least initially.

Finally, individuals who were pessimistic about their promotion prospects stated the lack of further promotion potential as the main reason for their attitudes. However, the case remains that clear majorities of each gender expressed positive feelings about the possibility of future promotions.10


9 Table 1 records as promoted only those individuals who have been promoted in their most recent job.

10 The question was asked of all respondents, irrespective of their promotion status. Among the nonpromoted, 51.40 percent believed a promotion was possible in the next 2 years; among those who did not believe a promotion was possible, 69.04 percent identified “no further promotion potential” as the principal reason for their attitudes, 14.49 percent pointed to “waiting for someone to leave,” and 11.92 percent indicated “need additional training.”

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About the Author

John T. Addison

John T. Addison is professor of economics at the University of South Carolina and professor of economics at Durham University, U.K.

Orgul Demet Ozturk

Orgul Demet Ozturk is assistant professor of economics at the University of South Carolina.

Si Wang

Si Wang recently completed her Ph.D. degree in economics at the University of South Carolina.