50 ways the workforce has changed in 50 years
Few things remain the same after the passage of half a century, and the American labor force is no exception. Between 1969 and the present day, nearly every aspect of the country's workforce has changed. The demographic makeup of who goes to work is radically different than it was 50 years ago, as is the type of work individuals do, how they do it, how they're paid, and even how they save for retirement. Certain industries like computer programming, coding, and alternative energy sectors were all but unimaginable half a century ago.
From the rise of computers and smartphones to the demise of manufacturing, the American workforce continues to adapt, evolve, and grow, grow, grow. With each passing year, American labor looks a little bit different than it did the year before. Here's a look at the most dramatic changes that have shaken, altered, and transformed America's workforce from the space age to the digital age.
The workforce has doubled
The single biggest change to the U.S. labor force over the last half a century might just be the sheer number of workers that joined it. What the Bureau of Labor Statistics classifies as the "civilian, noninstitutional" population ages 16 and up has skyrocketed from a little more than 137 million in 1970 to about 253 million today, due mostly to general population growth.
More prime-aged employees are working
Fewer than 70% of 25- to 34-year-olds in 1970 were active in the workforce. Today, that number is nearly 88% with millennials taking on a wide array of professions across diverse industries. Demand for younger workers has increased too, as more jobs require specialized training in computers, coding, or fluency in social media. While globalization reduces demand for manufacturing jobs, aging baby boomers means more demand for prime-aged workers in the health care industry.
More women make up the workforce
Another big reason for the increase in prime-aged workers is a massive rush of women to the workforce, particularly younger women who for the first time in history began to delay or opt out of marriage and childbirth altogether. In 1970, just 45% of women were actively working. Today, that percentage has jumped to 83%.
The gender gap is closing
Today, a difference of only about 10 percentage points separates men and women in the workforce. In 1970, the gap was much wider at 36.3%. That same year, the Equal Pay Act was passed to require equal pay and working conditions for men and women. Wage gaps have been closing since then as well—although that gap isn’t expected to close completely for almost another half century.
More workers support fewer dependents
The Bureau of Labor Statistics has developed an "economic dependency ratio," which measures the number of people in the workforce against the number of people, including children, who don't work and therefore must be provided for. In 1970, it was 140.4, meaning for every 100 people working, 140 were not. Today, that number has dropped to 97.4, which reflects a steep drop in the number of children the average family has raised over that time period.
Manufacturing jobs have shrunk
Although U.S. manufacturing output has actually increased in terms of output, the number of manufacturing jobs has declined dramatically in recent decades. These jobs peaked at 19.4 million in 1979. By 2010, that number was down 11.5 million despite a steep population increase in the ensuing years. Manufacturing payrolls increased a bit in the 2010s, but manufacturing is still the lowest it’s been since before America entered World War II.
The computer and electronics manufacturing industry has ballooned
Instead of slowing down, one industry in the manufacturing sector has enjoyed a meteoric rise in recent decades. Computer and electronics manufacturing grew by 2,607% between 1987 and 2017, demonstrating how advances in technology consistently mold industry and force workers to evolve with the changing times.
The demand for manual skills declined
Manufacturing jobs declined by about one-third since 1990, which has led to a fairly predictable change in in-demand job skills. As manufacturing jobs have dried up and automation has skyrocketed with AI and programmable machinery, demand for manual and physical skills like welding and carpentry has shrunk.
New skills have gained favor
While manual and physical skills are no longer as marketable, a premium has been put on workers with social, personal, writing, and analytical skills. That’s in part because the number of service-oriented jobs that requiring extensive knowledge, experience, education, and training has more than doubled.
Employers demand more prepared workers
Roughly 50 million workers in 1980 held jobs that required an above-average level of job preparation. By 2015, those whose occupations required above-average education, training, or experience had grown to 83 million—an increase of nearly 70%. A wider range of industries means more specialized training and more options for America's diverse workforce population.