Really, how secure were jobs in the 50s, 60s, 70s?

I met an ex-colleague in the grocery store last night. He had been laid off from his job as a shipper for a small manufacturer. The same company from which I was laid off in late 2008. The company got bought, and about half of the manufacturing went elsewhere. (From Canada to the US, in case you’re wondering.)

The guy is probably 55 years old, and really, the chance of him finding similar work seems remote due to his age and lack of skills. He packaged things up, printed the paperwork and got everything ready for courier pick-up. You could train an entry-level employee in a couple of weeks for such a job. I felt terrible for him.

Which got me to thinking: did people really have jobs for life once upon a time? My dad worked at the same place for 30 years. Seems to me all you had to do in the 50s through possibly 80s even was show up to work and do an OK job.

Any older dopers (I’m 48) want to add stories from these decades on what job security was really like?

My dad didn’t have a high school diploma, walked in to Ford in 1968, and worked there for 38 years.

He did get laid off for a miserable time in the early 80s, where the layoff pay pool ran out and he had two kids under 5 and had to get other jobs. But they took him back when they were able. He got laid off again for a short while in the 90s I believe, having to take some short term jobs again. Then later in the 90s Ford sent him to school (in Dearborn) and he became a skilled tradesman and that’s what he was when he retired at age 55.

Not bad for a stubborn alcoholic with no education. Although he is a hard worker so there may have been more to it than “showing up.”

But he absolutely can’t grasp the concept that there are no un-skilled factory jobs now, people lucky enough to get in to Ford “only” make $14, and the idea of salaried work makes his head spin.

My father owned his own business, so that doesn’t apply to him. But my father-in-law worked at GE starting from when he got out of the army in WWII and continued until he retired in the late 1980s. (GE was downsizing, but he got a good severance package.)

You did have to do a good job, and get along with others. His father worked at GE all his life, too.

My father started working for the UN in 1946 right after he got out of the army, and stayed there until he retired in about 1975. When I started with AT&T in 1980 there was a club called “Telephone Pioneers” consisting of Bell System people who had been employed for at least some long period. Membership was not rare. I went to a retirement party for one guy who started at 20 and stayed until he was 75. AT&T and IBM were considered to be lifetime employers back then.

On the other hand, my uncle worked for the defense industry in this period, and they got laid off all the time, corresponding to the end of big contracts. He got up and went into teaching sometime in the early 1970s.

50s and 60s were the pinnacle of job security, IMHO. The 70s were really when “you don’t have a job for life” started to hit home. The 70s recessions were - except by recent standards - terrible things. People lost jobs and homes (sound familiar). I remember, pre-Japanese recession that the Japanese were held up as still having a “job for life” sort of system that lead to security and loyalty. That died in the 1980s.

My father started working in 1966. He spent the first ten/twelve years with a “job for life” firm and jumped ship about a year before they started cutting headcount in the 1970s. He spent two years working for another “job for life” company, then got laid off. Worked for a third company, and switched jobs right as they got bought out. Worked fifteen+ years for that firm - through a lot of changes - and retired.

My grandfather got out of WWII and worked a line at the brewery for 35 years before they closed the plant - but he had a pension and was old enough to collect it.

However, even today - the company I work for I work with six or seven people within a few cubes of me who have worked here 30+ years. There are jobs and people where you can show up, do an adequate job, and have job security. Now, if any of those old timers get laid off in the next round - they really struggle - this is the only place they’ve ever known.

I think that for most people there was a brief period where the thought of “job for life” was reasonable.

My dad also worked for GE his entire career until he retired a few years back. Basically he graduated business school in the late 60s and worked there ever since.

There are some companies where you can still do that. Mostly large megaconglomerates like GE, P&G, IBM and such where educated employees are expected to change divisions every few years.

Jobs probably were more secure 30+ years ago. One of the main drivers of change over the past few decades has been the growth of the information age economy. It’s not just eliminating jobs with technology. Companies have much more information at their disposal, enabling them to reach much more quickly to changing market conditions.

Or to put it a different way, think of a product or service that will remain unchanged enough for the next 40 years where you can just sort of come in and do an ok job. That’s where your “job for life” jobs are.

My father worked for 30 years at a job and got a really sweet retirement package. His father worked at a Chevy dealership his whole life.

When I was at IBM (as a contractor), it was considered a life job, but life ended at 25 years. They’d throw you a party, give you a gold watch, and kick your ass to the curb. This meant that a lot of “lifers” found themselves jobless in their mid-50s.

The decline of unions is a driving factor.

My father got a college degree on the old GI Bill, worked for the same defense contractor for 33 years, and retired in 1985 with a defined benefits pension.

Practically socialism.

Though the period of union strength in the U.S. (not necessarily in other countries) was really an anomaly. It grew out of the depression (although union history itself is older than that - it was really the depression that made it a strong U.S. movement), lived through the “we’ll employ even women” period of WWII (when women were often kept out of union membership because their jobs were only until the boys came home), and then were strong in the 50s and 60s - when the economy was in a period of high growth, women were actively encouraged to stay home and European and Asian infrastructure was still in recovery.

By the mid-70s unions had started to decline in power.

So you had three decades of it being a real force. That isn’t a complete “working life.”

I’m glad it’s just not my perception. This is exhibit A in why I don’t likeErikson’s Stages of Psychosocial Development (aka Stages of Man, aka Ages of of Man…) which my nursing school is crazy about; it’s a great description of the ideal life of a white man in 1955, but it’s predicated on the “one job for life” paradigm. Looking for work at age 47 indicates one isn’t working at the “appropriate” level of development. Maybe that was true for my grandfather, but it’s hard to swallow when you’re sitting in a classroom full of 30, 40 and 50 somethings training for a new career.

To toss another couple of anecdotes on the pile: one of my grandfathers worked hand sharpening drill bits for the same company his entire adult life. The other worked for J&J, took a slightly early retirement because they were closing the plant in Chicago, and collected a generous pension and health benefits until his death.

My parents haven’t done too badly either: Dad worked for J&J/Chicopee until retirement; Mom is going to retire soon from a school district she’s been at for 25 years.

But I don’t know anyone in my peer group who’s had a job at the same place for more than 7 years, or who expects their current job to be the one they retire from.

I recall when I was a little shaver my dad used to say “Go to school and get a degree otherwise you’ll wind up working at Thrall Car”

It’s interesting to note he didn’t say if I didn’t get a college degree I wouldn’t get a good job, I’d just get one with less status.

I started working in 1981 and no job I had ever had a long term outlook. Most people came and went by that time, ten years was a long time for a company. By the 90s most of the jobs I had the companies were merging or reorganizing or buying each other out so it became even harder to find someone with the same company.

My Dad started working in the 1950s. He had a degree; he went to work in an office. He was considered a little unusual among his work peers, in that he changed jobs every ten years or so. But Dad always traded up; he would only leave one position if the next one offered him a better deal. Still, in all, I can think of only four or five companies that Dad worked for in a fifty-year-or-so career. I should add that after he officially retired, Dad did freelance consulting for various companies in his industry, so he extended his working life that way.

But Dad’s experience was unusual. My Mom never understood why Dad didn’t stay with the same company throughout the years, as she thought he was “supposed” to do–I recall that she actively encouraged him not to leave a company and go with the better offer. But Dad didn’t listen, and through his system of “trading up,” ended up as a vice-president of a major Canadian insurance company.

As regards the OP, I should point out that Dad’s jobs were never in jeopardy. He always had one, if he wanted it and was prepared to work. So I suppose he could have stayed with the same employer for forty or fifty years. Unlike his peers, but like many of today’s sports stars, he listened to the offers from the competition, and went with the best one if it seemed right. Still, he reported that this was unusual for the 50s, 60s and 70s. You were supposed to start with a company and stay with that company from your beginnings as a file clerk to your retirement as somebody a lot higher on the corporate ladder.

Not really. More of a symptom than a cause. With the economy shifting from a manufacturing economy to a services and information based one, there’s just less of a need for semi and unskilled laborers working the same job for 30 years.

And do you really WANT a job sharpening drill bits for your entire life? It seems like everyone I know changes jobs every 9 to 48 months.

My dad didn’t have a high school diploma and got most of his education from attending night school as an adult, but in 1987 he was able to get a good manufacturing job and has been at it since. He makes a lot more than I do, even though I have a college degree. Still, the main reason he hasn’t been laid off (and they’ve had quite a few layoffs over the past ten years or so) is because of his seniority.

Anyway I wouldn’t say you could just show up and simply do an OK job. But, it used to be that if you worked hard, followed the rules and did your job with minimal complaint, you could easily last until retirement.

Remember that adults in the 1950s were children during the Great Depression. Most of them had grown up seeing their parents struggle to get through that period (even if the parents hadn’t actually been unemployed) and then the men went off to fight in World War II.

That was my parents’ background, and given it, a job sharpening drill bits, working on assembly line or in an office for their entire life, earning enough money to afford a place of your own and have a few luxuries, sounded like a damn good deal. And that was pretty much the same for the employers, who felt like the continuing postwar economic boom let them safely forecast growth and employment needs.

The unemployment rate in the U.S. was remarkably low during the entire decade(except for the recession year of 1958 it never went above 5.6%) and throughout the 60s, as well. So for us baby boomers, growing up expecting a job for life was just as much a given as our parents wanting a job for life.

Fascinating chart. I graduated from high school in 1984. Having gone through the mid 1970s (I have a lot of memories of that 1970s recession) and then the 1983 recession, it never occurred to me that I wouldn’t be at risk for getting laid off.

My father got a job in 1937 after his gas station went broke (too many depression-era price wars) and worked there until the day he died (literally) in 1969. I think this was absolutely normal. His kid brother, after the war, got a factory job with the Budd company that laid workers off at the drop of a hat. But these were temporary, sometimes only one or two days. But they had a strong union and all benefits continued through layoffs and his health insurance continued after he retired until he died about ten years ago 20 years after he retired.

An incentive to stick with it (here, at any rate) was that, in many jobs (and the civil service) if you left prematurely, you lost all accrued pension benefits.

I was there. Actually, the companies I worked for, WANTED to retain its employees. The companies I worked for wanted to keep employees because the company felt it had invested in them, it had trained them for 10, 20, 30 years and did not want to lose them.

I was always surprised how many employees quit for no good reason, most of them BEFORE they were vested in the company pension plan. (Geeez…at least stick it out 10, or 5, years in order to get vested in a pension and a guaranteed retirement check for the rest of your life…)

The job market was a “job-seeker” market back then, mostly because we had tens of thousands of factories that needed workers, and because we had comparatively very little immigration so there was always a shortage of job seekers and the want ads were always filled with ads of available GOOD jobs begging for job applicants.It was supply/demand. Not only were jobs secure, but employers did everything they could to try to attract and keep employees,like company activities, company clubs, gyms, swimming pools, merit AND cola raises, more and more benefits, more and more vacation time, totally free/company-paid medical, dental, and health insurance, defined benefit pension plans, etc.

Today,** “Free-trade” **and unlimited immigration has reversed the job market to where today we now get millions more additional job seekers each and every year just from immigration alone.

The situation today is totally opposite of what it used to be in the 1950’s and 1960’s when high school and college graduates were besieged by employers competing against each other to try to get, and retain, as many employees as possible . I had several unsolicited great job offers when I graduated from high school, and I had over a dozen great job offers when I got my undergraduate degree. All sorts of companies, and government agencies, fought terribly with themselves trying to hire us. The companies I worked for prided themselves and bragged!!! if they had lots of retained long term employees who had been with their company for a long time.