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Is the decline in manufacturing economically “normal”?

Deciphering the phases of economic development


The FRED graph above tracks the proportions of employees working in three industries—construction, mining and logging, and manufacturing—since 1939. Construction (the blue line) has remained roughly horizontal. Mining and logging (the green line) has steadily declined. And manufacturing (the red line) has noticeably declined as well. This trend may look like weakness for the U.S. economy, but is it something to worry about?

Let’s take a step back: Historically, economic development has led to a declining share of workers in goods-producing sectors. The first sector to decline is agriculture,* whose workers moved to manufacturing and mining during the Industrial Revolution (which pre-dates our graph by a century or so). In the 19th century and beyond, the U.S. economy grew further and progressed to the next phases of development, with mining and manufacturing losing relative importance.

So if the U.S. economy is growing, where is it growing? The graph below shows the service sector has taken up the slack. At the start of the graph, in 1939, this sector had already made up 50% of non-farm employees, and it has continued to grow. The remaining sector, government, has remained relatively flat over the 80 years of this data series. Clearly, the U.S. economy is now much less focused on “making things.” Rather, the emphasis is now on education, health, leisure, retail, information, and finance.

How these graphs were created: Search the Current Employment Statistics release table and choose Table B-1 (seasonally adjusted); select the series you want and click “Add to Graph.” From the “Edit Graph” panel, for each line add series “All employees, non-farm” and apply formula a/b*100.

*Why don’t we show agricultural employment here? For one thing, it’s really hard to count: Many are part-time/seasonal workers and relatives that work on family farms.

Suggested by Christian Zimmermann.

View on FRED, series used in this post: CES0800000001, MANEMP, PAYEMS, USCONS, USGOVT, USMINE


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