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06.27.19

Cleveland Fed researcher examines changes in the types of work people do in the United States

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After 100 years of dramatic change, the mix of occupations in which people have been employed has been more stable since 1970. Cleveland Fed researcher Joel Elvery examines the evolution of occupational change in the United States from 1860 to 2015 in his latest economic commentary.

Elvery identifies five major occupational shifts, including the declines of agricultural employment and manual labor, and the rise of management. In addition, his analysis provides state-by-state breakdowns of occupational change.

“Look at any business magazine and you are likely to find a story about the rapid pace of change in the economy,” said Elvery. “However, a growing body of evidence has shown that the US economy has become less dynamic in recent decades.”

Measuring changes in occupational structure captures an element of economic change that is especially relevant to the workforce: Changes in the kinds of work people do. The occupational change indexes shows that the degree of change in the nation’s occupational structure peaked in 1950 and has been falling since 1970. This long horizon helps put today’s economic change in the context of past periods of rapid technological change such as the agricultural and industrial revolutions of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

In 1950, 10.7 percent of workers would have to change occupational groups to make the occupational distribution the same as it was 10 years earlier — the comparable figure for 2015 is 4.3 percent. The relatively low levels of occupational change in recent decades join a host of other measures — including lower productivity growth, reduced migration, reduced job flows, and less business formation – that show that the United States’ economy has become less dynamic in recent decades.

Read more: Changes in the Occupational Structure of the United States: 1860 to 2015


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