Most of us will spend decades, and countless thousands of hours, at our jobs — but how often do we think about “work” and how it is changing? On this Labor Day, it’s worth taking a moment to do so.
In the United States, the concept of “work” and the types of jobs that constitute “work” have changed dramatically over the past 150 years, reflecting changes in the country as a whole. As this interactive chart of census data shows, farmers and farm laborers constituted more than 50 percent of the jobs held by men in 1850; by 2000, farmers and farm laborers amounted to less than 1 percent of the working male population. Other jobs that were relatively common in 1850 — like blacksmith, which was 1.79% of the male job market in 1850 — have largely vanished, and new jobs like bartender and insurance agent have taken their places.
The shifts in the jobs have reflected, and in some instances caused, shifts in the culture of America. Farmers in 1850 worked with family members on land they owned and their work days were self-directed; they lived in rural areas and had little daily interaction with people outside of their village. Modern white-collar employees typically work in highly structured environments, doing what a complex hierarchy of managers tell them to do, in large cities and buildings where they may interact with hundreds of people each working day. The demands of the jobs are different — farmers needed to know when to plant and when to harvest, while office workers need to know how to create a decent spreadsheet — and the stresses are different, too. Who is to say whether preparing an important presentation for a corporate vice president is any more stressful than rising at 4 a.m. to deliver a calf whose successful birth might be crucial to eking out a profit for the year?
The census record of non-household work by women is even more interesting, because it not only shows the ebb and flow of jobs but also the impact of social change and technological change. At one time household workers (cooks and maids), farm laborers, and dressmakers made up the preponderance of outside-the-home working women, then — as more women entered the workforce — secretaries, clerical workers, and cashiers came to the forefront. And check out the “manager/owner” category for women, which has gone from less than 1 percent of women in 1970 to more than 3.3 percent in 2000. Our female friends and family members who own their own businesses and call the shots are part of a significant trend.
The “secretary” job category is particularly worth noting. The position first shows up in census data in 1900, where about .3% percent of women reported holding that job, and the job category grew to more than 5.3 percent of women by 1970, as white-collar jobs in America exploded. That number then fell to about 2.9 percent by 2000, and it has likely fallen farther since then. Why? It’s not because secretarial work is any less important, but because more and more of that work is now being done by the white collar workers that secretaries used to assist. As young people who are used to working on personal computers and doing their own keyboarding enter the workforce, there is less need for secretaries who can take shorthand and then type 100 words a minute, without error, on their typewriters for bosses who had, at best, “hunt and peck” proficiency.
How should people prepare for the constantly shifting job market? We might not be able to predict what types of jobs will be available as social and technological changes occur, but we can predict the characteristics that will make employees successful — because those haven’t changed at all. Whether you are a blacksmith or an IT specialist, hard work, timeliness, and attention to the quality of your output will always be keys to success.