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Occupation Change, 1920-2010

Every year the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) releases new data about occupations and employment in America. They estimate how many jobs there are for doctors and actors, how many jobs there are in manufacturing and real estate, how many jobs there are in a multitude of other occupations and industries. And every two years they make projections for the future, giving us an idea of which occupations will be growing and adding more jobs and which will be shrinking and perhaps even disappearing. Despite all the work that goes into these estimates and projections, from year to year the data look pretty much the same. Some occupations outpace their neighbors in growth, but rarely by much; the 7th largest occupation last year might be the sixth largest this year, but we rarely see dramatic yearly changes. So why is all this work important?

While it’s true that from 2010 to 2011, the occupation data look pretty similar, over time incremental differences really start to add up. Small yearly changes can bring big changes over the course of a decade. And several decades will bring dramatic changes to our entire occupational system, as technological and economic forces fundamentally change the nature of work in America. One of the reasons that the BLS does these employment projections is to help educators and education planners to foresee the occupational landscape that students will be moving into as they graduate, and to develop programs that meet the demands of the future instead of the demands of the past.

It can be difficult to take the necessary wrenching steps to prepare for the future, but looking back at the past may help us to see how important these steps are. The graphic below depicts how occupational employment has changed in America since 1920. Students entering the workforce today face a dramatically different landscape of jobs than their parents did in the 1980s or their grandparents in the 1950s. And the work world that their great-grandparents entered in the 1920s is almost unrecognizable.


Back then, about 25 percent of jobs were in agriculture and 40 percent were in manufacturing and other blue collar fields. Today, fewer than one percent of jobs are agricultural and only about 20 percent are blue collar.

In the 1920s, only about 5 percent of workers held professional jobs. This has exploded over the last 90 years and today about 35 percent of workers have professional jobs. Rapidly advancing technology has not only automated and eliminated many jobs that once provided manufacturing, blue collar,  and agricultural employment for millions of Americans, but it has also increased demand for professionals who create, manage, and explain this technology, many of them working in occupations that were unimaginable 90 years ago.

The accompanying table lists the occupations classified as “Professional Service” in the 1920 Census. The list is not long and the Census list of “Semi-professional” occupations is not longer and consists mainly of assistants and apprentices to the professionals. Notice that there there were more artists and more photographers in 1920 than architects, chemists or college professors.

Gainful Workers 10 Years Old and Over, 1920 Census 
Professional Service OccupationsEmployment
Artists, sculptors and teachers of art35,402
Chemists, assayers, and metalurgists32,941
College presidents and professors33,407
Editors and reporters34,197
Lawyers, judges, and justices122,519
Musicians and teachers of music130,265
Physicians and surgeons144,977
Teachers (athletics, dancing,etc)9,711
Teachers (school)752,055
Technical engineers136,121
Trained nurses149,128
Veterinary surgeons13,494
Other occupations18,409

In the 1920 Census, data was collected on just four kinds of “technical engineers:” civil, electrical, mechanical, and mining. In 2010, the BLS reports employment numbers for 17 kinds of engineers: aerospace, agriculture, biomedical, chemical, civil, computer hardware, electrical, electronics, environmental, industrial, health and safety, marine, materials, mechanical, mining, nuclear, and petroleum.

In 1920, the Census counted just 10 health sciences occupations: dentists, osteopaths, physicians and surgeons, trained nurses, chiropractors, healers, dental assistants, physician assistants, midwifes and untrained assistants. Today, over 50 health science occupations are recorded by the BLS, many of them including sub-specialties of their own. Many of these occupations had not even been contemplated in 1920, including speech-language pathologists, nuclear medicine technologists, and prosthodontists.

Although the professional occupations have seen the most growth, they’re not the only ones to have changed.  Every occupational arena today includes a range of occupations unimagined in the 1920s, from CNC machinists to telemarketers to multimedia artists. And every arena has seen jobs disappear. It’s not just the buggy whip makers who are gone. The 1920 census reported 28,000 newsboys; 15,000 bootblacks; 113,000 messenger, errand, and office boys and girls; 221,000 blacksmiths; 19,000 coopers; 73,000 milliners; 79,000 shoemakers; and 19,000 hostlers and stable hands.

Comparing occupations over time: It’s not easy to compare the distribution of occupations over long periods of time. Our employment landscape has changed so much that the occupations studied by the Census Bureau in 1920s, and the summary occupational groups that resulted, don’t match the groups of today. For example, in the 1920 census, “bankers, brokers and money lenders” were considered to be in “trade” and grouped together with occupations such as “retail dealers,” “salesmen” and “store clerks” that today are classified into the broad category “sales.” As a result, the graph accompanying this post only approximates the changes that have taken place.