Work: Past, Present, Future


I’ve been looking a lot at the Job Voyager, a nifty interactive chart of the U.S. labor force from 1850 through 2000. On it, you can see the number of farmers and farm workers decreasing fairly steadily and the number of clerical workers rising. You can see the percentage of women in workforce increasing, with an impressive leap between 1950 and 1960. A fascinating fact: until 1950, one could claim “inmate” as an occupation on one’s census form. Likewise “retired.” Some professions, like blacksmith, have basically disappeared, while others, like electrician, have emerged. Aside from a spike in 1990, the percent of public officials has been fairly constant.

Women in the Work Force
Women in the Work Force

It’s an amazing look at how American life has changed over the years. A blacksmith had skills and knowledge an electrician doesn’t, and vice versa—though both professions require working with customers, prioritizing and pacing jobs, and coping with emergencies. History classes often take a very impersonal view; we study wars and supreme court cases, but we look less often at how people live. On the other side, when we read biography, memoir, or historical fiction, we tend to get a wonderful personal view; we see very clearly how that one person lived. The Job Voyager gives us a rare middle view: we’re looking at the shape of the entire society, but we’re also looking at the day-to-day details of how people made a living.

I’ve really been having fun looking at these charts. It’s also fun to think about how a similar chart would look in another hundred years—I can just see “blogger” appearing from nowhere.

3 thoughts on “Work: Past, Present, Future”

  1. The data is alarming! Too many graduate from college and high school without any skills at all. Yet, if a young person learns a trade, like blacksmithing, he or she will not only have a paycheck, but also a sense of accomplishment that comes from working with one’s hands.

    “Have you beheld a man skillful in his work? Before kings is where he will station himself; he will not station himself before commonplace men.”
    ~Proverbs 22:29

  2. Why is it alarming, Dionna?

    Yes, too many graduate—or don’t—without skills, but that’s not the message I saw in this data. Sure, blacksmithing’s not a common trade anymore, but a good electrician or mechanic or programmer can and should get just as much satisfaction and sense of accomplishment from their work. Wiring a house, fixing a car, or programming a computer require skill and knowledge, too. The data shows change, but change doesn’t need to be bad.

  3. I am alarmed because it seems to me that we live in a society that often looks down on occupations that require sweat–the so-called blue-collar jobs. Young people seem to turn their nose at the idea of working with their hands–be it becoming a mechanic, an electrician, a carpenter, a horse groomer, a roofer, or a window cleaner. Yet all these trades require skill. True, being a writer, an artist, or an editor requires sweat and skill, too. But I agree with the words of Booker T. Washington: “No race can prosper till it learns that there is as much dignity in tilling a field as in writing a poem.”

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