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This Labor Day, I wanted to check into something that I have long suspected but didn’t have the numbers for: that work is still evolving, and that the decline a manufacturing jobs in not the end of our economic history.

To do this right, I looked up the economic census for as far back as I could go.  They published an excellent digest in 1776 which summed all the way back to the first census in 1790.  The basic expertise of our economy – agriculture, mining, construction, manufacture, transport, trade, and services were all represented in this census from 1840 on.  Before 1840, the economy of the US was pretty much agriculture, transport and trade, so I began my data collection from 1840 to 1960.

It builds character on a holiday weekend that is also my 10th anniversary to transcribe pdfs from the census web site into excel to develop nice simple graphs for you.  While I bless the census for providing this rich trove of information at the touch of the right keywords, I also bless the census out for not getting the optical character recognition right.  This is churlish of me, as these documents are hundreds of pages each, containing tabular information from every period and practice of tabulation over the last 200 years.  Its not like they used a spreadsheet to typeset a lot of this information, so I can see ho importing it into a spreadsheet might be difficult.

The other problem with the data is that the census began monkeying around with the definition of employment after 1960, and the tabulation of employment since 1970.  I found wading through the reams of 1970 data so onerous looking for something comparable to be so onerous I just gave up and omitted that decade from the presentation, as you will see.  Again, anniversary.

Here are the numbers of Americans employed in the general sectors of the economy.  The year next to the titles in the legend are the lads years that were comparable to our current numbers from the 2010 census.  So we now have about as many farmers as we did in 1820, for a nation that was 3% as populous as it is today.  Apparently people found other, better things to do.
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Next up are the percents of America’s workforce employed in these sectors of the economy.  Here we can see the fall of agriculture, the rise and fall of manufacturing, the peak of construction, and the rise of service.  Services, was once dominated by domestic work, but has come to incorporate the whole of sanitation to engineering, medicine to IT.  If you are cleaning or typing something, you are in services.  Perhaps the category cries out for refinement, which is why I suppose NAICS has hundreds of types and subtypes of hobs to explore.  Neat, but lacks the historic prevents I need to compare today with 1850.
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Then, as before, the legend titles have a year associated with them.  Her, those are the years when the employment sector occupied its peak number of workers.  This is a general indication of when the sector was most dominant in the economy.

The overall impression I get from this is that the economy continues t change, and continues to find new replacements for work that was once seen as vital.  The next installment in a few weeks will talk about the flip side of employment, expenditure.

Work is not ending, it is just changing, as it always has.  No need to waste our wooden shoes yet.

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