Let's step back for a minute from the day-to-day news about jobs and unemployment and ask few bigger, simpler questions: What do Americans do for a living? And how has the picture changed over the past several decades?
We can answer those questions with two graphs.
What We Do For A Living
Breakdown of all U.S. jobs, as of 2012*
What We Used To Do For A Living
Breakdown of all U.S. jobs, as of 1972*
Jobs where people make stuff for other people — manufacturing jobs — account for a much lower percentage of total jobs today. America still makes a lot of stuff in 2012, but technology means factories make more stuff with fewer people.
Jobs where people do stuff for other people — service jobs — account for a much higher percentage of total jobs. A particularly big gainer has been education and health services. This makes sense, given the huge rise in health spending as a percentage of total U.S. economy.
Jobs in government and wholesale and retail trade have held pretty steady. Those sectors were two of the top three in both 1972 and 2012.
A few, final notes on some of the details in this comparison:
In absolute terms, the number of jobs in America has risen from about 73 million in 1972 to 133 million today, primarily as a result of population growth. The percentage of Americans in the workforce is a also higher today than it was in 1972 (64 percent versus 60 percent).
Over time, some jobs have been re-categorized. New jobs that didn't previously exist were thrown into the mix. But overall, the 12 major categories included in the charts above have remained the same.
We chose 1972 as the baseline, because that's the earliest year for which this kind of apples-to-apples comparison was possible based on the BLS data. (You can find all of the historical data — in all its glorious detail — here.)
*The survey used to collect these data don't include farm jobs (that's why the big monthly jobs report is called "nonfarm payrolls.") Farm jobs account for less than 1 percent of all jobs, according to the BLS.
FOR MORE: See our post, What America Sells To The World