How Many Jobs the Average Worker Has and What It Means For You

Pop quiz hot shot –

Can you guess the median number of years that a worker (wage & salary) has been with their current employer as of January 2020?

4.1 years.

THAT’S IT.

The days of staying in a job for decades is gone. Long gone.

That statistic comes from our friends at the Bureau of Labor Statistics. “Employee tenure” is the official term and they’ve been tracking that number for quite some time. (data in this article comes from their data released September 2020)

(for what it’s worth, in January 2016 and January 2018, the average tenure was also 4.2 years)

To add a little color to the statistics, it’s important to know two things:

  • 4.1 years seems short but it’s actually about middle of the pack compared to the last ten years. It was as high at 4.6 for 2012 and 2014, as low as 4.0 in 2006.
  • The median changes based on age group. 55-65+ employees have been at it for 9.9 years. Those 25-35 have a median tenure of just 2.8 years.

So the job turnover is most acute for younger employees, as you’d expect with summer and first jobs, but most people still aren’t sticking with the same job for 40 years.

What does this mean for the number of jobs an average work has? If you change jobs every 4 years, that’s a lot of jobs!

Table of Contents
  1. How Many Jobs the Average Worker Has
  2. Abandon the Myth of the Forever Job
  3. Build Income Insurance
  4. Maintain financial flexibility
  5. Level Up Your Skills
  6. Focus on Yourself, Your Family, Your Friends

How Many Jobs the Average Worker Has

Fortunately, we don’t have to guess with fuzzy math. The BLS has that data too but it’s based on a much smaller data set because you have to track individuals over a lifetime!

The BLS published a study in 2015 that looked at the number of jobs held by folks born between 1957 and 1964 from when they were 18 to 48. The provocatively named article, “Number of Jobs, Labor Market Experience, and Earnings Growth Among Americans at 50: Results from a Longitudinal Survey” was based on a survey of 9,964 people.

Ready for the answer?

  • The average worker held 11.9 jobs from the ages of 18 to 50.
  • The average 5.5 jobs between 18-24, 4.5 jobs from 25-34, 2.9 jobs from 35-44, and 1.7 jobs from 45-50 (there’s some overlap between age groups)
  • Nearly half of the jobs were held before the age of 25.

There were a lot of other fascinating statistics in there too, like individuals were employed on average 78% of the weeks from 18 – 50. The news release does a great job summarizing the findings.

Personally, I’ve had many jobs (the ones in blue were jobs I had before I turned 25):

  1. Expediter & order taker at a Chinese food takeout restaurant
  2. Banquet waiter at Three Village Inn
  3. Summer intern at Periphonics, an IT telephony company
  4. Summer intern at Intelligenesis, a defunct startup in New York
  5. TA for a handful of courses at Carnegie Mellon
  6. Software engineer at Northrop Grumman, defense contractor
  7. Software engineer at Booz Allen Hamilton, defense contractor
  8. Self-Employed or at a company where I own significant (30%+) equity – since 2008

So when I look back at my jobs, I’ve had quite a few.

Abandon the Myth of the Forever Job

The data shows two very obvious things – very few people have one job for their entire working adult life. In fact, the pattern seems to be a lot of jobs before your 25 and then a handful of moves until you start looking towards retirement.

If this is the case, why are there so many experts telling us we should stick with one career? No group has ever “stuck with” a career for 40 years. Not baby boomers, not Gen X, not Gen Y, not millennials – not a single age cohort you want to pick.

When I worked in the defense industry, I worked for two companies – Northrop Grumman and Booz Allen Hamilton. When I was at Northrop Grumman, I started at $60,000 a year and received 3-4% raises each year. I was there for three years before leaving for Booz Allen Hamilton, where I immediately enjoyed a 36% raise to $90,000 a year.

It takes 12 years of 3.5% raises to get from $60,000 to $90,000. Or one.

When I made the move, I was told that you shouldn’t switch between jobs too often or you develop a “reputation.” Those statements only help companies and managers, who don’t like finding new people to replace old people who were doing a good job.

For what it’s worth, the other thing people warn you about is interviewing elsewhere and taking a job offer back to your employer. They say that your company will question your loyalty, your dedication, your whatever. A place that would do that isn’t worth working at because that’s the same place that will try to pay you less and lean on that same loyalty.

 

Companies that value your talent and your contribution will pay you accordingly. I’ve had several friends interview, get offers, bring it back, get paid more, and their careers are even better than they were before. There are two sides to everything.

What if the situation were reversed? If there’s an economic downturn, will your employer keep you around because they’re afraid of getting a reputation of letting people go when they don’t make enough money? No. They let you go because if they don’t, they go under. If they go under, there is no reputation to protect.

There are no forever jobs.

We are all freelancers whether we recognize it or not.

We need to start treating our careers like freelancers treat gigs and clients. We need to take steps to approach our work differently.

What does that look like?

Build Income Insurance

Freelancers know that the gigs that pay the bills today aren’t forever. Projects will end. Clients will leave or go bankrupt. Irregular income is a part of life.

We need income insurance. You buy insurance for everything that’s important to you, from your car to your house to your pets (maybe).

But how do you insure your job? (especially if it’s a high paying job that doesn’t require a college degree)

Passive income is your insurance against your job. Developing your streams of income will protect you in so many ways. One of the things people talk about is “F U Money,” or the idea that if you had enough money you could tell your boss to pound sand if you really wanted to.

They view that money as a big lottery-esq sum but you don’t need that much. You need what that money represents, which is a stream of income that can replace your primary income (job).

You can build non-W2 income by saving money and investing it into passive sources. Or you can develop a side hustle (that you can also invest into passive sources of income).

The goal is to unshackle your from your job so you can make smarter and better decisions. So you aren’t beholden to that employer. So you can go on interviews without fear of reprisal from because you have a separate, untouchable stream.

Maintain financial flexibility

When you knew you were working somewhere for decades, it makes a lot of sense to “settle down” and buy a house.

And buying a house is great. We own our house, we love living in it, but we’re not planning on moving for decades.

When you might change jobs every four years, it makes less sense.

A house tethers you financially and physically. You owe a mortgage payment, which is often higher than comparable rents, and you can’t move easily. Selling the house is a long process, with its own financial costs, and that inertia can get in the way of good long-term decisions. You also can take fewer risks because your monthly expenses are higher too. If you’ve developed some streams of income, more of that safety net is gobbled up by the mortgage and property taxes.

Have you ever heard of the term golden handcuffs? It’s when your compensation is set up in a way that it makes it very hard for you to leave your employer. If you have high monthly expenses and can’t take any risks, those are a type of handcuff. Avoid those and give yourself the flexibility, especially when you’re younger.

The frequency of job change decreases after 25. If you want to buy a house, look to do so after then. There’s no rush. There will still be houses. 🙂

Level Up Your Skills

If you work a corporate job, there are a ton of benefits outside of compensation. At Northrop Grumman, they would pay for a Masters and even a Doctorate. The same at Booz Allen Hamilton. That might be the case for you too. Use those opportunities to level up your career trajectory on someone else’s dime.

For the company, it made business sense. They knew that if you gained more credentials, if you learned new skills, then you could be billed at a higher rate on contracts. A Masters degree was worth 3-5 years of professional work experience on a contract.

If your field doesn’t care about certifications or degrees, there are other skills you can learn and develop that have significant value. Look to increase those while you’re working and maybe you can parlay that into compensation in the next job.

Plus, those skills and degrees stay with you. You have to “pay” with your time but the benefits are yours to keep forever, no matter who you work for.

Focus on Yourself, Your Family, Your Friends

You must maintain a healthy lifestyle with respect to your body, your mind, and your relationships. It’s very easy to sacrifice all those things for your job.

When I was at Northrop Grumman, I was part of a “leadership program” that held extra “development” events. I remember one event where a panel of managers talked about their careers, what they’d do differently, and other subjects meant to educate us on the future.

One of them told a classic allegory, attributed to Bryan Dyson (former President and CEO of Coca-Cola Enterprises) from his commencement speech at Georgia Tech in 1996:

Imagine life as a game in which you are juggling some five balls in the air. You name them – work, family, health, friends and spirit … and you’re keeping all of these in the air.

You will soon understand that work is a rubber ball. If you drop it, it will bounce back. But the other four balls – family, health, friends and spirit – are made of glass. If you drop one of these, they will be irrevocably scuffed, marked, nicked, damaged or even shattered. They will never be the same. You must understand that and strive for Balance in your life.

It’s easy to let your job dominate your time, energy and emotion. It’s really easy if you love your job, love your co-workers, and think you’ll be at that job for decades. It gives you a sense of fulfillment, one of the highest levels of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.

The reality is that you can love everything about your job… but recognize your job won’t be forever. The statistics bear that out.

Don’t sacrifice your family, your health, your friends, or your spirit for a job that, with no ill intent, will drop you in a heartbeat.

How many jobs have you had? How has your relationship with work changed over the years?

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About Jim Wang

Jim Wang is a thirty-something father of four who is a frequent contributor to Forbes and Vanguard's Blog. He has also been fortunate to have appeared in the New York Times, Baltimore Sun, Entrepreneur, and Marketplace Money.

Jim has a B.S. in Computer Science and Economics from Carnegie Mellon University, an M.S. in Information Technology - Software Engineering from Carnegie Mellon University, as well as a Masters in Business Administration from Johns Hopkins University. His approach to personal finance is that of an engineer, breaking down complex subjects into bite-sized easily understood concepts that you can use in your daily life.

One of his favorite tools (here's my treasure chest of tools,, everything I use) is Personal Capital, which enables him to manage his finances in just 15-minutes each month. They also offer financial planning, such as a Retirement Planning Tool that can tell you if you're on track to retire when you want. It's free.

He is also diversifying his investment portfolio by adding a little bit of real estate. But not rental homes, because he doesn't want a second job, it's diversified small investments in a few commercial properties and a farm in Illinois via AcreTrader.

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  1. Greenbacks Magnet says

    Funny how things change. 4.2 years is nothing compared to my folks generation where they were at jobs for 30 years! I think it makes it harder for people to build strong roots if they have to move around so much. But if you do, I say keep you skills up to date and always keep learning.

    Thanks,
    GBM

    • Jim Wang says

      My dad just retired from a company he’s been with for 30 years. He’s changed roles but it’s the same employer, stunning!

  2. Aaron says

    Counted em up and had about 17 jobs. Crazy when you think about it but gained a lot of difference experiences. Prioritizing work so that it becomes a means to an end rather than the end itself.

    • Jim Wang says

      Isn’t it amazing how many you’ve had? We sometimes discount the early ones, that we had for just a little bit, but those were real jobs. 🙂

      • Steveark says

        Ok, I’ll be the odd one. I just had one job after college. For well over 30 years from entry level to running the place right up to my slightly early retirement two years ago. Every one of my three millennial kids has had several jobs so the times have certainly charged! Now in my retirement I have a mix of a dozen paid and volunteer side gigs, maybe I’m catching up?

  3. Brad says

    Jim, I’ve gone from $45k to $80k in less than 4 years switching companies twice; 44% increase. Something that would have taken seventeen years at a normal 3.5% increase rate. Prior to my first move, I heard the quickest way to get raise is leave a company and come back. While I didn’t go back, it remains true that it’s the best way to get a raise is moving to a different company. I was also told, that I shouldn’t switch between jobs too often or I’d develop a reputation as a money chaser. However, I also recently heard that view is changing. If you don’t have multiple job changes on your resume it can viewed as unambitious. I think there’s a balance that one should find to not switch every chance you get, but do when their’s an significant advantage; monetary or otherwise.

    • Jim Wang says

      Isn’t it funny how people change the narrative to fit the story they want to tell? If you’ve been at the same job for 20+ years, someone who moves around a lot is labeled a “job hopper.” Even though the “job hopper” increased their salary by 44% in 4 years. FORTY FOUR PERCENT! That’s absolutely stunning (and awesome! kudos!).

      If you’ve moved around often, for whatever reason beyond salary motivations, the person who sits in the same cubicle for 20+ years is seen as coasting. Just collect the paycheck at the 9-to-5 and pursue your ambitions and hobbies outside of work, right?

      There’s never a right answer. There are billions of people out there with a billion unique stories and reasons. But the data is clear – the 20+ year worker is rarer than the new job every 4.2 years worker. 🙂

  4. Bernz JP says

    Well, I know of at least six people in the IT industry whos changed jobs almost every two years. One of them is my nephew. I guess it’s the money game in this sector. My wife have worked in three different banks in the past ten years. So far during my employment years, I’ve worked in three different companies as well the last one being a Federal employee.

    • Jim Wang says

      The reality is that if your skills weren’t in demand, you wouldn’t be able to move jobs. Companies don’t seek to pay people more because they want to! They have a need to fill and they seek talent and labor that can fill it.

      And it’s ALL a money game! Time is money and so the more of it you have, the more of life you can enjoy. 🙂

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