What happened to the ‘Job For Life’?

It’s my wedding anniversary today; four years, no time at all in the halls of marriage…..Gary Chaplin Wedding Montage but in career terms, four years is now a well above average tenure. What happened to the ‘job for life’?

Times move on, businesses move on and careers have certainly moved on. The average (median) tenure for people’s current jobs in the UK is now significantly less than 4 years, yet only 25 years ago it was almost 10 years. The average number of different jobs held in a lifetime is now 11.8 for men and 10.6 for women (the female ratio increases to be higher than men once you take out the effect of ‘family’).

For young professionals, the stats are even more surprising. Professionally qualified individuals under the age of 35 move jobs, on average, every 2 years 2 months. Once that age profile moves to 35-45 it improves, but only to 3 years 1 month.

If we wind back a generation, the ‘job for life’ was very common place. Wind back twoRetirement generations and it was positively expected. My father in law stayed with his employer from his very first day of employment, right up until he retired.  My grandfather began working for the civil service at the age of 15 and concluded his employment, in 1977, after almost 45 years….and he took ‘early’ retirement.

We do still see some people getting to 25, 30 and even over 35 years service, but the realistic chance of someone entering the workplace today and staying with that employer for 40 years is almost nil. Is it the people, the businesses, the nature of work or the world in general? Or a combination of all four?

The world is turning a lot faster, in just about every conceivable way. Man’s ability to get around the world is increasing exponentially. Countries ability to shift their economic positioning is accelerating like our forefather would never imagine (See China and Greece as diametrically opposed examples). The world’s appetite for change and development is on an accelerative path like we can’t begin to comprehend – and technological advancements are responding to that desire (or are they fuelling it?)

Businesses are different. Very few businesses genuinely stay in the same, recognisable form for a decade, let alone for a generation. That is a comparatively new phenomenon. Genuine Blue-Chip businesses that dominated decades of this country’s commercial power up until 20 years ago are now few and far between, one could argue that there are no such things as Blue-Chip businesses, in this country at least – save except for the major banks, as controversially proved in the last 4 years. The pace of shift in the make-up of the FTSE-100 is further proof of that.

The nature of work has evolved. 50 years ago, over ¾ of the employed population were employed in what would been deemed blue-collar employment, or unskilled labour. Today that number is estimated at 43%. Blue collar workers are 3 times more likely to be in their job for in excess of 20 years, but that again is falling.

People are probably the biggest element though. Our appetite for change, our hunger for development and our unwillingness to tread-water are like we have never seen, and it is only getting worse. The global appetite and impatience every time Apple launches a new product are again proof of that – despite each hyped build up is less than a year since the last amazing developmental launch of a ground breaking product that by tomorrow will be outdated and to some at least, worthless. After a year.

The ‘playstation generation’ have grown up on immediacy. Instantaneous internet and computer speed, the immediate playback digital music and video provides. They have become used to yesterdays launch being outdated before they hear about it – their attention constantly focussed several phases ahead.  How do you expect someone to do the same job for 20 years when they get impatient over the annoying wait until a video game starts or a streamed movie loads?

Add in modern day human’s transitory mindset – nothing lasts forever, and fewer things are expected to last more than a few years (marriage included!). Virtually every purchase we make is seen as almost disposable. White goods expected to last maybe 5 years, tech products less than that. There are even fewer and fewer younger people staying in the same house/location for much more than this magical 4 years.

Given all of the above, it isn’t difficult to see why the average tenure of jobs is getting shorter and shorter, fast forward 15-20 years when current ‘lifers’ fall off the end of the employment statistics, expect that figure to plummet yet further.

There are however financial and career development reasons for such short job tenures.  The average ‘job for life’ worker can expect their earnings to increase just 2% above inflation/cost of living, this compares to the average pay increase for those moving jobs of 12% over the last decade (impressive when there has been downward pressure on earnings over the last 3 years).  Those getting internal promotions will typically see just an average of just 7% increase.

Two of conversations I had yesterday were with people I placed into similar level finance jobs in the late 1990s. Both with sizable organisations. One has only recently departed that same job, he has had 3 promotions and his exit salary was just 30% higher than his starting salary 14 years ago – in physical terms – in real terms, it is probably no higher. The other individual has had 5 jobs, 3 of which I have put him into. His current remuneration level is over 3 times what it was 13 years ago, and his package value well over 5 times that of 13 years ago. Moving works.

It’s also my fault.

There is a final reason though – the recruitment industry, and specifically Head-Hunters. Professionals taking the decision to consider looking for a new role, and thus asking me for advise on doing so will typically do so when they are naturally ready for a fresh challenge (whether driven by carrot or stick). However, the Head-Hunting/Exec Search sector will approach people well before that time.

This may be somewhat unpalatable from an employer perspective, but our clients want the best – and the best will seldom be actively looking on the job market, and are highly unlikely to be sat on a recruitment business’s active database.

This is also the reason the Exec Search market is growing so quickly, as businesses realise that in order to capture the best talent before they go public, they need to get someone to map, search, approach and lure the best talent for them….and that’s where we come in.

….Alas whilst our actions are driving our clients’ businesses forward every quicker, they are also putting the gold-pocket-watch industry under threat.

8 Comments on “What happened to the ‘Job For Life’?”

  1. Interesting post.

    I’ve had 7 jobs in less than 25 years so am averaging just over 3 years each.

    I would have to agree that moving helps but disagree (slightly) about the “no jobs for life” comment.

    I’m currently in the public sector (HE) and have a number of colleagues who have just retired or are about to retire with 30+ years of service with the same employer. I’m not saying that it’s as common as it used to be but it is still possible!

    However, even in the public sector – mobility is key to advancement. It is FAR easier to be promoted by moving away from your current position (and then sometimes moving back!) than it is to go through lengthy regrading procedures. It’s what I’ve done.

    Keep writing interesting stuff Gary.

    All the best,


  2. Great article Gary and a very good subject.

    I’ve favoured semi-transient employees for a long time as not only is it good for the individuals to get new and fresh challenges, business benefits from having an injection of new and fresh ideas by recruiting from outside into senior and key roles.

    Peers have always lamented having to replace key development roles on an ongoing basis partly through training and learning curves, partly through the time and cost issues. I welcome it, the benefit of fresh ideas and fresh energy is a more than fair trade-off.

    *plus the fantastic deals you are going to do me on recruitment now make it even cheaper 😉



  3. Interesting blog, but I don’t agree with most of it.

    I am one of the outdated concepts you spoke of on Twitter. I have worked for my employer for in excess of 20 years. I have worked hard and performed well. I have never been one of the fools that thinks that hours worked are an indicator of how hard you work nor how valuable you. I work my hours, do my job, take my pay check and go home to address the life part of the work/life balance.

    I am also not one of the people that thinks that brown nosing the management through being one of the cool kids socialising out of hours is, or should be necessary.

    Yet despite doing my job well and working the hours that I’m set, I get fed up with being passed over for promotions by people that come into the organisation with inflated ideas, inflated egos and inflated salaries. They will then stay for 2 or 3 years before moving to their next short stint, leaving me and the mass of people like me to continue clocking in and doing the real work but without the inflated salary.

    If the pace of change in the work place is due to the pace of change in the world then I think we are living in a sad place. Greed is not good, and everything that causes the changes we speak of is down to greed. Even worse, the greedy dictate the pace of life and the level of expectation for the workers they stand on to fulfill their greed. This demand on change is what leaves businesses facing boom and bust, with the same loyal workers usually facing the repercussions of the bust.

    Maybe the recruitment industry should be forced to only deal with candidates that have been with their employer for a minimum of 4 or 5 years, or those who are out of work.

    Great Britain was Great 20 years ago when people stayed in their jobs for twice as long.

    Interesting article all the same though. well done on provoking thought.

    Stephen Oliver.

  4. Gary,

    Great blog, really well thought out but it also raises some interesting questions

    – If organisations could recognise talent, and invest in it effectively, employee tenure would be longer and the costs to the business of senior management recruitment would be lower. The issue is that the culture of reward in many businesses is loyalty is rewarded with lower financial rewards than moving on can generate. This is perverse and is often driven by short sighted HR policies designed to ensure “parity” over “performance”.

    14 years ago, my graduate mentor told me that “you only ever rent good people”, This shouldn’t be the case if the reward structure in a business and the career progression matches the individuals aspirations. The reality is most organisations create an environment where talent will move because the aspirations of the individual, and the rewards the market will offer, are substantially different to those on offer. It still surprises me when I talk to friends and former colleagues who are on high potential career paths,then resign to be offered a token increase on their current package which is well below the cost of replacing them.

    If the “dark art” of headhunting isn’t going to continue to grow as a market force organisations need to ensure they are matching the aspirations (Financial and otherwise) of the identified talent in the business, Too often this is ignored as large organisations adopt inflexible development policies which mean talent looks elsewhere. Whilst this is still the case, effective operators like yourself will continue to thrive.

  5. Great Blog Gary and amazing stats. Our lives have become faster paced and bored is a way of life. Try getting to your child to play with a whip and top nowadays! But has this benefitted business? is the wasted time in getting a new employee up to speed detrimental to business? or are the fast pace of new ideas more than worth it?

    Great points all the same.


  6. Very accurate assessement Gary
    After 7 years in the 1990’s of being “captured” and being offered poor pay rises, I left that employer and had 10 years of doing temporary roles. Some were designated as such and others became temporary.
    Employers lack loyalty to employees as they once did and as an employee you need to be loyal to yourself first in this current environment.
    The key is to be continually challenged in your current role and to have appreciation of your efforts from your employers, which includes the recognition of your efforts via your remuneration package.
    In the last 7 years, I have been with one employer who has substantially developed and grown and with that has come recognition of my efforts. This is the key to success, find an employer who appreciates you.
    I have had 25 employers in 40+ years. Very few have.

  7. Pingback: Has the Elevator Pitch been replaced by the #TweetPitch? | Gary Chaplin


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