Let’s compare the 10 largest occupations in America in 1999 and 2013, shall we? (Pause for sigh.)

Before, we’ve talked about where jobs might be come 2022 — so eight years or so from now. But what’s happened to jobs in the past decade or so? Well, check out this chart, courtesy of Pew:


Here’s the original post. There are a couple of important caveats: (1) figures were not adjusted for inflation, so comparing 1999 to 2014 is obviously a bit different than the numbers presented above and (2) because of the changes in the way jobs are sometimes titled/called, the figures are not exact. Still, though, we can pull a few things out:

1. Among the 10 largest occupations as of May 2013, the highest average salary is registered nurses, at about $68,910. The next highest is secretaries and administrative assistants, at about $34,000. Back in 1999, there were two professions over a $40,000 annual number — nurses again, and then general/operations managers (more on them in a second).

2. The 14-year jump in nurse salaries is pretty insane; their average was $44,000 in 1999 and is $68,000 now. You see the same trend in this broad “general/operations manager” category — their salaries double, to over $115,000 annually, but their numbers declined (i.e. they are not a top-10 largest occupation anymore, so they’re not reflected on the 2013 numbers).

3. Now here’s the issue: if you look just at average salary, retail seems to be a good thing — it went from about $19,000 to about $25,000 in 14 years. Food prep/service went from about $13,000 to about $18,000 in the same span — so on surface, it seems like things are trending up, right? Actually, not so much. Consider:

On the other hand, combined food preparation and serving workers (a category that includes fast-food workers) numbered more than 3 million in 2013, versus 1.95 million in 1999; their average pay rose less than 40%, in nominal terms, over that time. (None of the OES pay figures are adjusted for inflation.)

Now think about that for a second: if you assume about 127.3 million people are working in the U.S., that means that 2.3% of the country is working in food prep, give or take. 20% of the country is working across 10 professions where only two of them are netting more than $40K a year. Inequality does exist, for sure. Heck, Princeton and Northwestern professors are combining to argue the U.S. is an oligarchy, not actually a democracy.

This all ties back to the minimum wage, which is a divisive issue from AP Economics right on through adulthood. Many believe that most of that chunk of people working in food service/retail is/are high-school kids. That’s partially true, but you’re seeing more and more middle-aged workers in that field too:

If you were to raise the minimum wage to $10.10/hour (current proposal), that would affect about 13 million Americans who currently work, but make lower than that figure (or between that figure and the current figure). The flip side argument you hear is that raising the minimum wage creates more space underneath it (bear with me, I’m not that good at economics) whereby people can hire illegal/cheap/etc. labor at the old rate because they don’t want to pay $10.10/hour.

America is a tremendous country on almost every conceivable front, especially when it comes to having a good, potentially prosperous life … but these charts above and some of this context are showing a gradual shift to a country dominated by poorer professions (or people not working at all/leaving the labor force), and that’s troubling.

Ted Bauer

One Comment

  1. The other side of the minimum wage opposition is that, not only will you increase more illegals being hired et cetera, but even if you address that problem (which we should, even if we don’t increase the minimum wage, to allow wages to rise naturally – hold that thought) you will end up with fewer of these jobs, which would be fine, if there were new jobs to replace them with. The minimum wage is a truly bad idea economically, because in the best case scenario (wages are rising naturally) it simply has no effect whatsoever, and in a situation where it does have an effect, the effect could be truly horrifying (massive swells of unemployed, hopeless, unimproving people).

    We do have an inequality problem, but it won’t be addressed well by raising the minimum wage. The American middle class grew when you could buy a city block in NYC, say “I’m going to build the Empire State Building here”, break ground on it the next day and, in a mere 8 months, open for business. These days you’ll still be fighting for your business permit in 8 months.

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