It’s commonly said that we can now expect to have several careers in a lifetime, as opposed to the more stable patterns of the past. Commenter Russell made this claim a few days ago, but he is hardly alone. In selling the University of Queensland’s courses and careers day, Associate Professor John Mainstone said:
Once it was the case that people pursued one career over a lifetime,’ he said. ‘Now people may undergo several career changes, so it is important to seek specialist advice to allow the widest range of future career options.
Monash University’s Graduate School of Business offers similar advice:
Gone are the days when employees would join a company and climb the ladder through vertical career paths. The biggest change is the shift from thinking about a single lifetime career to multiple careers.
Victoria University bids up the number of careers even further:
Today the 21st century demands much more from us. Did you know that current data suggests that we will have between 6 to 8 careers in our lifetime, and not just the one?
And careers councillor (sic) Heather McInnes goes further still:
We could reasonably expect to change our career throughout a lifetime, possibly up to 10 times.
Ten careers! The escalating number of careers we are supposed to experience sounds like a story that is improving with every telling. Despite a couple of efforts to find the studies on which these claims are based, today and a few years back when then Education Minister Brendan Nelson was making similar claims, I have come up with nothing except many repetitions of similar assertions without citations or evidence.
In trying to work it out for myself, I have hit both conceptual problems and data limitations. What is a ‘career’? In government documents, it seems to be been defined to include almost everything:
A CAREER is the sequence and variety of occupations (paid and unpaid) which one undertakes throughout a lifetime. More broadly, ‘career ‘ includes life roles, leisure activities, learning and work.
On that definition, getting to 10 isn’t going to be too hard, but it’s not what the other people I quoted mean by ‘career’. I think generally it probably means either a continuous job or a series of jobs that build on one another, either with a single employer or multiple employers. For example, when in 1997 I went from editing Policy to being David Kemp’s higher education adviser I was changing careers, but when I left that job to advise the University of Melbourne on higher education policy I was changing jobs but not careers.
I don’t know of any data source that can tell us about the long-term work history of individuals, but the ABS does record labour mobility over the previous twelve months.
The first labour mobility survey was carried out in 1972, at the tail end of the long period of post-war prosperity that must have shaped perceptions of earlier labour market stability – because it certainly would not have existed through the Great Depression of the 1930s or during World War II, when a large proportion of the population had their career paths diverted for military service or to support the war effort in other ways. Looking at those who had been in their current jobs for less than 12 months in 1972, those who had also changed occupations amounted to 5.3% of the total workforce.
The 2006 labour mobility survey seems to ask a slightly different question, looking at those who had changed employer/business in the last 12 months. Those workers who been with their current employer for less than twelve months and had changed occupation were 5.1% of the total workforce. But this survey identifies those who had stayed with the same employer but had changed occupation, which gives us another 3.5% of the workforce, so a total of 8.6% of workers changing occupations.
It’s possible we are not entirely comparing like with like, as the 1972 question may not have prompted those with one employer for more than twelve months to consider whether or not any altered duties amounted to a new ‘occupation’. Another problem is that the ABS is only counting shifts between broad occupational classifications, when shifts within these groups as well as between them could require the re-education the quotations above claim is necessary.
At this broad level, there has – with the caveats above – been a modest increase in annual occupational mobility over the last 35 years. But if a career is a building of one job on another, those doesn’t necessarily mean that people have more careers. It could also mean that people are going through a longer sequence of occupations as part of a single career.
Another way of looking at the issue is to see how many people stay in their jobs for long periods of time. The early data on this is particularly interesting, because it calls into question conceptions of ‘jobs for life’ in the past. In 1972, more than 60% of the workforce had been in their jobs for 5 years or less – well short of a working life. In 1975, a more detailed question was asked, which revealed that just 8% of workers had been in their jobs for 20 years or more, which is less than the 9% recorded in 2006. The difference is even more marked for those who had been in their jobs for 10-20 years: 12.4% in 1975, 15.7% in 2006.
There may not be any real change going on here, as the average worker is older now than then, and job mobility declines with age. But it does show that even in an era of protected industries and slack public sector jobs few people wanted to do the same thing for 40 years. As far back as the statistics go, people have moved between jobs at a fairly high rate, and what we see now is nothing exceptional.
Though much narrower than the whole workforce, a further way of looking at the issue is to look for career changers in university enrolments, say those aged 30 or above. Currently, 28% of university enrolments fall into that age group. That’s higher than the 24% in the earliest age-based enrolment data I could find, 1980, but about the same as mid-1980s figures. As I could not locate long-term undergraduate-only data, this is all university students. Given that postgraduates are a much larger proportion of total enrolments now compared to 1980, and they are likely to be older on average, it’s possible that undergraduates are even more likely to be under 30 now than in the past.
In 2005, the ABS Education and Training Experience Survey asked people for the main reason for their current course of study. 7% of undergraduates and 8% of postgraduates said it was to ‘try for a different career’. Far more people looked to be trying to advance their current career – 14% of undergraduates and 35% of postgraduates said ‘to get a better job or promotion’, and 3% of undergraduates and 15% of postgraduates wanted ‘extra skills for job’.
On the available data, it isn’t easy to say how many ‘careers’ a person will on average have over his or her working life. We can say that shifts between major occupational groups are infrequent; I suspect that many of those shifts that are recorded are ‘pre-career’ shifts, as students move from part-time jobs to their career proper. But I have found no data at all on shifts within the major occupational categories.
The statistical evidence we do have suggests that there has been no great change over time, and that the earlier era of job and career stability is largely myth.
What of the future? I can’t think of a strong reason why career mobility would be greater than before. There is one reason to think that it might be lower, which is that as the number of knowledge intensive high-skill jobs increases, so do the disincentives for starting again in a different career, as it can take years to acquire the necessary knowledge and competence. This is why we see people turning to postgraduate education to build on their existing career, rather than trying to shift between careers.