'Job for Life' - Does it Still Exist

Posted on 28/4/2016 by Katherine Memery

"Gone is the job for life with its planned career structure and company training scheme. Gone is the clear functional identity and the progressive rise in income and security," – Association of Graduate Recruiters

To most university students, graduates, and young professionals, the term ‘job for life’ is almost an archaic notion, a concept that was left behind in the last century. The job market, economy and mentality of 21st century Britain simply no longer tends to lend itself too well to the idea.

Not only are we now faced with a vast, diverse, and ever changing job market, but employers have increasing flexibility, best illustrated by zero hours contracts. Similarly, there is no longer that dream of the gold watch or mantel clock as a reward for long service upon retirement, with the desire for mobility being at the forefront of the psyche of most career orientated Brits.                                     

Previously it could be argued that career progression was based around working hard and staying loyal to one company, whereas now, for various reasons, it is easier in some sectors to work your way up the career ladder by virtue of moving from one company to another, effectively negotiating better terms as you move. Current figures for UK employment retention show that 67% of men have been with their employer for less than 10 years compared to 70% of women. 46% of men have been with their employer for less than 5 years and 48% for women. Comparing the UK to other European countries within the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, the UK comes second for lowest employee retention, whilst the likes of Germany, France, Italy and Portugal top the tables. So there’s clear evidence for this trend in the UK, which is very probably a contributing factor to the demise of the ‘job for life’. Is it all to do with a change in the mentality though, or are there circumstantial reasons too?

When the ‘credit crunch’ and recession hit, there was relatively few places for any business to hide, with redundancies sadly being a universal reality. However, smalls business and start-ups were generally hit the hardest as lending institutions tightened their belts, which meant the significant proportion of the British workforce employed by such businesses were left in a rather sticky situation. Finding a job per se became their main concern, never mind a job for life.

And then if you turn the clock back fifty years or more, you’ll see that many industries that are now almost obsolete were much more buoyant. Jobs within a lot of these industries were the sorts in which workers would remain for life. Take coal mining, for example. Miners would not only tend to be miners for life, working for the same company, but would often come from a family of miners, with their parents and grandparents before them having worked for the same company too in many cases. Over the last fifty years, industry and manufacturing has gone from being the UK’s biggest sector for jobs to now only making up a relatively small percentage of the economy. The point is, the whole make-up of the UK job market has changed, and continues to change at an ever increasing rate, meaning employees have in many cases had to learn new skills, re-train, and ultimately move jobs to earn a livelihood.

Whist our European counterparts haven’t necessarily seen this trend taking hold as much as we have in the UK, the ‘job for life’ mentality has been eroded in other parts of the world too. In Japan the term ‘Shushin-Koyo’ was used to refer to the phenomenon of permanent employment, whereby the most prestigious companies would all simultaneously recruit hoards of graduates, who they would embed by offering lucrative bonuses, housing and travel subsidies, pensions, use of recreational facilities and, ultimately, genuine job security. In return, employees would traditionally work very hard and commit to these companies, which gave rise to a ‘job for life’ culture. However, by the late 1980s, economic conditions and the cultural influences of globalisations started to undermine this tradition.

The onset of globalisation, rapidly changing job markets, and fluctuating economies have evidently all played their part. Whichever way you look at it though, it seems safe to say that the ‘job for life’ has well and truly gone and is really little more than an expression as archaic as some of the industries it once represented. 

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