Job switching among Baby Boomers

I’m teaching Labor Economics this Fall for the first time, which means I’m constantly in search of interesting ways to get students to think about how we study questions of why people work, why they get hired, how firms decide how much labor to hire, and more. In one of these quests this afternoon, I found a BLS report from July outlining duration and number of jobs held by later period Baby Boomers (born 1957-1964) over their lifetimes.

It’s a short, descriptive report and the numbers come from the NLSY79, which is a fantastic longitudinal study of employment and educational outcomes, families and more. What I found so interesting about the report is that it shows that baby boomers, on average, held 11.3 jobs over their working lives. That number struck me as high. Even though about half of those jobs were held before age 24 (think summer jobs, part-time jobs while in school), there’s still a lot of switching over 30-40 working years. And it runs contrary to the narrative that I’ve both heard and repeated, which says that our parents were likely to take one job and keep it throughout until they retired, while my generation (which is unclear to me–too old to be a Millenial, but feel too young to be Gen X), is more likely to have switch jobs often and have shorter tenures at each job.

Of course, we can’t really compare the lifelong numbers until my generation is much older, but I wonder how much that narrative is perception (because we have the closest experience to more volatile period of the ages of 18-24), or because we actually enjoy less job security.

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The downfall of data

The PAAs last week were all about data. The exhibits at the conference were sponsored by various longitudinal surveys such as the PSID, the Mexican Family and Life Survey, RAND FLS and more. As I perused the poster sessions, it was amazing how many posters came from employees at the US Census Bureau. Having interviewed there last year, I was aware of their numbers, but the PAAs bring to light just how much work they are doing at the Census to illuminate American life. Beyond that, presentations used the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing data, as I do, the NLSY, the ACS, the Mexican Migration Project, and so many more. The concentration on data was unlike I’ve seen at any other conference. Theory was definitely not a big focus.

So, it’s with sadness that today I saw the news that the House voted to cut funding for the American Community Survey, a Census Bureau instrument that tracks all sorts of data about Americans. I received the survey at my home in Boulder shortly after the decennial Census. My roommates, feeling survey fatigued, refused to fill it out, but I, being the economist and possible eventual end-user of this data, went ahead. I also encouraged friends and family to fill out their Census forms.

This comes on the heels of funding being cut for the NLSY (though restored for FY 2012), a concurrent distaste for political science research in the House, and doesn’t bode well for other demographic endeavors. Economists, sociologists, anthropologists, biostatisticians, public health researchers, epidemiologists, political scientists and more depend on these data–from studies already in existence and to-be-collected–to do meaningful and interesting research. While (sometimes) privately funded, small-scale longitudinal studies like the Fragile Families study provide a good snapshot of groups, only nationwide, representative studies can help us to know what is going on in the country as a whole.

The link above claimed the survey was an unconstitutional invasion of privacy. Which is absolute crap. The US government does things that are far more invasive than ask how many years you went to school and how many flush toilets you have. And far less useful.

Update: John Sides talks about his NSF Grant and similarly cut funding for political science research on the Monkey Cage blog.