Do workers have more careers now than in the past?

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.

11 thoughts on “Do workers have more careers now than in the past?

  1. Andrew Norton wrote:
    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.

    The post graduate certificates now available (usually 2 years, part time or similar amounts of commitment) offer a neat way of avoiding having to devote massive amounts of extra time into a career “track jump” rather than a whole new career (at least for me – I just enrolled in one). Granted, I’m not planning on making a massive career jump by doing an MBA or similar, but the opportunity to skill up in (say) different branches of science after completing a science degree were quite broad. For me, at least, there are substantial disincentives to starting again (couldn’t do medicine for example, the time/money factor and lack of smarts would do me in), and I couldn’t re-train to be an electrician as the wages are starvation levels for somebody with a family, but a “top up” that is related to your area of business, rather than your technical skills, is well within the reach of most bachelor graduates. On balance, you could probably “track jump” three or four times and end up with (basically) two careers if you required formal qualifications. I don’t think this is any different from the previous generation though – although it’s likely they learned their “track jump” skills on the job.


  2. David – For once, I think we are largely in agreement. Your comments reminded me of an article in ABS Australian Social Trends a couple of years ago looking at multiple qualifications. I showed that most second qualifications were in the same field as the first, and of those that were not ‘management and commerce’ were the most common, suggesting that perhaps people were acquiring management qualifications as their jobs evolved to involve more management responsibilities but perhaps not moving fundamentally from their original field.

    As you suggest, there may be a point at which workers have in effect changed careers, but the large sunk cost in initial qualifications and job experience means that the incentives are strongly for building on an existing career rather than making a large leap.

    It’s pretty clear that further uni qualifications will be a larger part of this than in the past, but not the 3 or 4 year u/grad degrees that are normally the foundation of a career. So while the uni sources quoted above are probably mistaken in suggesting that multiple careers are more common than in the past, they would be correct in saying that further study is a more important part of career development than it once was.


  3. There is another tangential line of argument which says a large percentage of jobs in the future don’t exist yet. I can’t count the number of times I’ve been told by careers councillors or teachers whilst at high school that I will have a job in the future that doesn’t exist now. I have my doubts about this idea too.


  4. Oh well, at least I was in good company. I was, as usual, thinking of the experiences of people I know – who have started out with a B.A. and then added diplomas to move from teaching, to librarianship, to journalism, to marketing etc.

    But I should have thought of the experiences of my ancestors (years idly spent in the State Library exhaustively tracing the family trees) because it’s surprising how much those people moved about (sailboats!) and how many different things they did. Not quite sure how I came to be descended from such confident risk-takers.


  5. Anecdotal evidence suggests that before World War II there was a preference, both on the part of workers and employers, for blue-collar workers to be highly mobile “jacks of all trades”. Demand for labour tended to be seasonal, and it was unreasonable to expect a skilled and dedicated worker to be permanently aviliable in one location when his skills were only required 6-8 weeks of the year (or not even then in some years, due to factors beyond the control of employers such as drought). These people tended to have little formal education but who could turn from shearing to fruit-picking to stevedoring to boundary-riding to any one of a number of tasks, across the country or even beyond it, given the elastic nature of being Australian and/or a “British subject”. It is no surprise that the largest union for much of this period was the occupationally-unspecifically named Australian Workers’ Union.

    In the period from World War II until about twenty years ago the Australian economy demanded workers with a higher level of skill, which required more formal education and tended to result in specialised skills and defined markets for those skills. Workers, having come out of the Depression (whre the jack-of-all-trades was best placed to take advantage of scarce opportunities – this period was probably the apogee of this quality), tended to see security in specialisation. Union membership peaked during this period as workers in a long-term relationship with a particular trade or industry identified their interests with the union within that trade/industry.

    Those who see the modern era as a period of decline from the certainties of the postwar heights should recognise that it was a highly unusual period of history, whose confluence of highly particular circumstances has now passed.

    A case could be made that women have always been multi-career workers. Motherhood requires a variety of skills in itself, and women have assumed much of the work in their husbands’/fathers’ businesses for which they have traditionally received little credit.

    Over the past twenty years the Australian economy has reverted to its natural state in demanding jacks-of all-trades. The difference is that the nature of those trades has changed; rather than low-skilled rural employment, the demand is for higher-skill work which requires workers to undergo training and retraining, often at their own expense. Union membership is in sharp decline. Their role in training is largely limited to safety, not in facilitating the upward mobility that comes from retraining (especially if it takes the trainee outside the union’s trade/industry, which would be against their interests). Longterm employees are regarded with suspicion as to a quality highly prized these days: their ability to be flexible.


  6. There is the other side of the coin too, which is the number of employers who are/were offering conditions which nurtured a “cradle to the grave” mentality. It was very prevalient in the banking and government sectors, but other sectors also had this pattern.

    With the exception of grandfathered conditions, cradle to the grave conditions generally aren’t offered anymore: defined benefit super plans etc generally don’t exist (again, except for the grandfathered conditions).

    Most effective HR departments are still looking at ways to keep their best people, but I think it’s generally understood that even in well run organisations (from a HR perspective), attrition is going to happen, and so policies are built with that in mind.

    Taking the statement:

    “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

    That may well be true in truly knowledge intensive arenas, however, I would suggest that it’s relevent only to those areas and not generally applicable.


  7. “That may well be true in truly knowledge intensive arenas, however, I would suggest that it’s relevent only to those areas and not generally applicable.”

    Brett – I think that’s right, but as knowledge-intensive jobs become a larger proportion of the total, aggregate career mobility would go down even with no change among other groups.


  8. No point offering something when there are no takers, Brett.

    Accounting is a knowledge-intensive area: the accountant who goes into management consulting or IT, using their accounting skills and mindset, has nonetheless changed careers. So too the nurse who becomes a phrmaceutical sales rep, or the schoolteacher who does corporate training as part of an HR role.

    The increasing number of law graduates has led to a lower proportion of them practicing as lawyers. Law-firm partners with a pass Bachelor of Laws decades old determine the careers of Masters graduates with better marks and a wider scope of education.

    Tertiary education providers offer qualifications not as lifelong durables but as products with a limited shelf-life, designed to propel you into the next stage of your career and available for upgrade when that qualification too fades.

    Knowledge-intensive jobs are not career traps, quite the opposite. High-paying knowledge-intensive jobs minimise the risk inherent in changing careers.


  9. Andrew E,

    My point was that when an accountant takes the path to IT (for example), it’s not a wholesale change in the same respect of an accountant who becomes a doctor.

    To change to some other knowledge intensive jobs (e.g. accounting to medicine) later in the working life requires, as Andrew N notes, massive upheaval, and so in that sense there is that “career trap” that you mention. However the less intensive change (accountant to IT) may be less so.

    “Tertiary education providers offer qualifications not as lifelong durables but as products with a limited shelf-life,”

    I think this is something we can generally agree with. 🙂


  10. I dunno about careers (I share with you the scepticism about the “ten careers in a lifetime” stuff -vested interests using woolly defintions to evade disproof), but Mark Wooden published a paper on job tenure using the ABS Mobility stuff a couple of years ago and did indeed find that average job tenure has been increasing over the past couple of decades. So much for the “casualisation” of the workforce.


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