Home > Political Economy, The Economy > Graph of the week: US Employment to Population Ratio 1948-2011

Graph of the week: US Employment to Population Ratio 1948-2011

from Edward Fullbrook

The dramatic long-term increase of the US EPOP beginning in 1976 resulted mainly from the success of the Women’s Liberation Movement.  But what accounts for its even more dramatic 10-year and still ongoing decline from 2001?  How far down will it go?  When will it stop?  What could stop it? 

  1. February 23, 2011 at 5:54 pm

    I think women are actually taking over in the workplace and that we men are becoming drones.

    • Alice
      March 15, 2012 at 8:36 am

      Hedge – heel again. Both Mum, Dad and the dog need to be on the treadmill to pay for the unmentionable mortgage (prices fuelled by gambling on Wall Street and cheap credit everywhere)…
      Get used to it. Women arent taking mens jobs and turning men into drones. We are all drones now. Productive and efficient (until we are exhausted), exploited, casualised and used working drones (replaceable as well – soon by the kids if labour market regulations are de-regulated any further)

  2. s h a r o n
    February 23, 2011 at 6:06 pm


    Hee! (as it were)

  3. Peter Radford
    February 23, 2011 at 6:56 pm

    I have no hard conclusions, except that, anecdotally, I see a much larger number of early retirements amongst the baby boomers. They all apparently headed to the exit at the earliest possible moment. Anyone above the age of 50 finds it extremely difficult to get back in the workforce, so the tendency is to drop out. The steady elimination of the old corporate middle management layer in business may have something to do with it too. Plus, the steady decline in manufacturing forced a large number of workers off the employment roll. Finally, it would be interesting to see participation split between male and female workers for comparison.

    Plus compare this trend with Europe, where participation was long below the US but is now above it.

  4. Peter T
    February 24, 2011 at 1:24 am

    If you look back over long periods, then modern work hours (or employment participation) are unusually high. Most of the time, there are more people than can be gainfully employed, and a fair number of the employed are in “unproductive” employment (rentiers, people standing around making other people look good and so on).

    I would tentatively relate this to the amount of energy available to the human ecosystem. More energy, more work available.

  5. merijnknibbe
    February 24, 2011 at 8:59 am


    1. Did you read ‘The industrious revolution’ of Jan de Vries (Cambridge (USA), 2008)? It’s exactly about this: first, because of protestantism (less holy days, abolishment of the ban on interest), population growth (lower labor production and wages) production and cultural/historical factors (coffee, tea, sugar, ‘things’, the very European trait of fast changing fashions) people started to work more and more after 1550, to be able to buy food as well as the plethora of earthenware, silverware, ironware, cottons and comparabale items which became available – at least until somewhere in the nineteenth century. When male wages started to increase, the breadwinner-home maker household however was established (according to my research possibly with highly beneficial consequences for childrens health, but that’s another question), which had its apogee in the fifties, after which women started to return to the (paid) labor market again (see the graph above, of course). In many countries, voluntary shorter hours might indeed be part of the solution right now – but in my view that requires good rules about, for instance, maternity/paternity leave and sabbaticals.

    2. Recently, I’ve been tinkering a bit with the ‘1946’ enigma: in the USA as well as in Canada and Australia, a very rapid winding down of the HUGE war economy did not lead to massive unemployment. One of the reasons for this was a drop in average hours per employee (USA) from about 2800 per year to about 2300 per year. ‘Austrians’ (a sudden increase in investments, probably due to the unwinding of some New Deal measures) as well as Krugman (a sudden upward change in consumer demand, probably due to the introduction of New Deal measures, like old age insurance (by the way – I’m nog searching for this guy, but you do encounter him everywhere)) emphasize the demand side of the economy to eplain the enigma, the supply side may however has have been as important (according to me, it’s also total demand which matters, not just either government or consumers or investments or exports).

    • Alice
      March 15, 2012 at 8:43 am

      In the 1950s they invented something very important that spurred women into entering the labour force. It wasnt the pill. It was hire purchase,

  6. Peter T
    February 24, 2011 at 12:51 pm


    It’s on my list. But I have read a fair bit around the period. Taking your points – are they not examples of what happens when more energy is available? Fewer holy days is an effect, not a cause. Interest may have been formally banned, but this was pretty much a practical nullity (see, eg Florentine banking from the 12th century). Sugar is a food (see Kenneth Pomeranz for the contribution it made to European calory intake). More things result from more people working; which is an effect of more calories available.

    The war saw a huge investment in infrastructure in the Americas, with follow-on in Europe. Particularly in oil, gas and transport – so the transition was not to the pre-war world, but to one in which there were more ships, more technically-trained people, more wells, more pipelines.

    What’s the converse as population catches up? More population is surplus to productive work, as the available sources of energy fail to grow fast enough. They get diverted into various forms of unproductive employment, which yet provide access to money and so to the overall flow. Social competition hots up (but the form this takes is contingent on local socio-politics). Eventually population hits some fluctuating level well below absolute carrying capacity.

    For the most basic level, see Butlin (Dreamtime Economics).

    • Alice
      April 9, 2012 at 9:41 am

      Goodness – Butlin – one of the great men of economics – alas came from the since sunsequently economic history schools

  7. merijnknibbe
    February 25, 2011 at 10:10 am


    I love that stuff, am going to read Butlin, seems a welcome addition to the superb but by now slightly dated work of Diamond. One of the good things of these kinds of studies is that it’s not just about us, or the rich and powerfull, or about how economist assume that people behave (boooring), but also about the ‘others’, in this case the Aboriginals. Economics as it should be – you inspire me to go on with the seventeenth and eighteenth century Cape Town probate inventories, which do show some rare glimpses of the clash between the ‘San’ civilisation and the commercialized European settlers (which indeed had a much more productive kind of production, system per hectare (!), compared with the mainly hunting/gathering (and, somewhat later on, cattle robbing) San. Though it might well be that ‘robbing cattle’ is not part of San vocubalary, just like Swahili does not know a word for ‘poaching’.


    1. How do you define ‘unproductive employment’? Priests and gentry? Or bankers and politicians? The military?

    2. I’m a big fan of Campbell, see: http://www.basvanleeuwen.net/bestanden/agriclongrun1250to1850.pdf

    One of the exciting things of this research: after the 1348 black death, real wages increased, overnight (over year, in fact) with 40% – and increase which lasted for about a century. Production per worker did, however nog increase. The only exlanation: ‘The Big Ease’, as wages increased, people at that time saw no reason to work as hard as up to 1348 and started to take it more easy: the backward bending supply curve of labor (all kinds of rulers did try to discipline and enslave workers and small farmers in those days, to little or no avail however, though it did lead to uprisings and rebellions – it was indeed more than a bit like present day Wisconsin, the rich and powerfull trying to coerce those upon whom their wealth and power ultimately depends. Naturally, workers choose freedom.

    3. See also (especially graph 5, in Dutch, alas):http://www.tseg.nl/2007/4-knibbe.pdf: after 1890, available calories did not increase anymore until 1939 (in fact: until about 1955, but that’s not in the article), while available protein in fact deteriorated. But height, health, morbidity, mortality and the like continued to increase and improve and to increase and improve – despite spanish flue, WWI and even despite the ‘hunger winter’ in WW II. Why? Still an enigma, My hypotheses: more knowledge on hygiene, governments which took action (the sewer thing, education) and especially women which had more time and money to run their household and care for the children.

    4. Another fine long run estimate (alas also in Dutch, see however the calories graph), which shows that all kind of orphanages and the like did feed the children well, in general, http://www.tseg.nl/2007/1-westerholt.pdf

    5. Pierre van der Eng ( http://www.jstor.org/pss/206725 )has written on Indonesia about this, 1800-1995. A mind boggling finding implicit in his estimates: many Indonesians must have survived on diets which would have starved europeans. Did their bodies fenotypically adapat to this (there is ample evidence that body size fenotyically adapts to the amount of food available, not just in the first but also in the second and even third generation). Or are these findings measurement errors: the Atwater factors used to calculate the energy content of food (calories) are literally obtained by burning food, it might however well be that the fat/carbohydrate ratio of of crucial importance for efficient digestion while lots of fibres have a negative effect on digestion. Also, chronic as well as childhood infections of the intenstines (characteristic for many third world countries) hamper the efficiency of the digestive tract. ‘More population’ is therefore a somewhat ambigious phrase, as the population/energy ratio does not depend on heads and ‘Atwater’ calories alone but also to a very considerable extent (maybe as much as 50%) on height, health and the composition of the diet.

    This war thing: great. Comparing 1946 with 1940, I saw a 20% increase in labor productivity per hour, which puzzled me. Might have been the thing you mention.

    On my aviliations, fortunately, nobody pays me to do research or even expects it. But I do indeed know als those people above.

  8. Peter T
    February 26, 2011 at 7:22 am


    Many thanks for an interesting reply.

    You are right that defining productive and unproductive is hard – I have some thoughts I’ll come back with.

    Your other points have sent me back to a variety of sources – again I’ll have to come back.

  9. April 16, 2011 at 11:50 pm

    I’d like to see a graph that looked at male-only employment-population ratio over this period. I’d also like to see one where we excluded military personnel…

  10. Louis Gabriel
    March 14, 2012 at 12:40 pm

    I am writing a book about this subject and It will probably get alot of attention from many professionals that will disagree with my research, and observations because of their political affliiation and academic background.
    I recently submitted a glimpse of my opinion to a web site thinking it would never be accepted because I speak the truth about what is happening in the job market place that no one seems to want to talk about. Its’ time that the average person seeking employment get exposed to the reality of what is necessary to survive in life!


  11. April 9, 2012 at 2:59 am

    Imagine you are a business owner and seeing the anti-business policies under the Pelosi/Reid congress, and then hearing Candidate Obama talking about card check and mandatory employer funded health care for each employee, is it possible you might carefully look at your entire company and eliminate any employees that were not critical to your company’s long term survival?

    Then add in one of Obama’s proposals (which never passed) to pay companies $3000 for each new employee hired.

    Back in September 2008 I was advising clients to lay off any employee they didn’t really need and rehire them once the $3000 new employee subsidy was passed. My guess is I was not alone in offering that recommendation to clients.

    • Alice
      April 9, 2012 at 9:45 am

      Well yes – its regulation for small business and deregulation for large business. The two tier approach of government and when the rich are not paying their taxes (or nearly enough taxes) the beleagured, indentured givernment like Obama and the republicans both come crawling to impose more impositions on small business and individuals.
      Yes sir. We the patriotic middle class and the poor stand ready to carry the rich.
      That is apparently now our duty.

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