The History of Work

McKinsey Global Institute recently reviewed how U.S. employment has changed since 1850 – measured by industrial sector. The largest employment decline was in agriculture and farming. Due to mechanization (tractors, combines, etc.), agricultural jobs share of the workforce declined about 56%.

Manufacturing jobs have also fallen, but total manufacturing employment, surprisingly, is down 3.6% (in terms of total workforce participation) from 150 years ago. But, that is misleading. Manufacturing started at a relatively low level, grew to about 26% in the 1960’s, and has declined to a slightly lower level from the original starting point.

The most significant gains in U.S. employment came from wholes and retail trade (12.8%), followed by education (9.9%), health care (9.3%), business and repair services (6.1%), financial services (5.9%), professional services (5.0%) and government (4.9%).

Not surprisingly, employment shifts during the study period have largely been driven by mechanization. What the McKinsey report did not answer is how employment might change in the future as more sophisticated computing power and artificial intelligence takes hold.


Visualizing 150 Years of U.S. Employment History