Sectoral Shifts in the U.S. Labor Market

Here’s a little chart I whipped up showing how the American labor market has transformed over the past five years. Everything is indexed to the recession low point, so this doesn’t capture the change in the absolute size of these four sectors but they’re all pretty big.

I picked these four because they illustrate the four totally different trajectories that are out there. In the health care sector, it’s as if the recession never happened. When nominal incomes and nominal spending fall, it seems that citizens of technologically advanced wealthy democracy simply don’t cut back on health care services. That’s the fixed point, and it’s other stuff that gets squeezed. Then there’s manufacturing, where you can see that the much-ballyhooed “manufacturing recovery” is a real thing but also very much a political construct more than an economic one. Obama took over at the tail end of a truly epic collapse in manufacturing performance, so a rebound that’s left us well below where we started looks good if you just blame Bush for the collapse.

Then there’s food services—waitresses, cooks, bartenders, and busboys. This is the sector that’s displaying a proper recession/recovery trajectory. Lots of job losses during the downturn, but a nice bounceback and there are now more people working in restaurants and bars than at any time in American history. Which is good because there are also more people living in America than at any time in American histroy.

Last the teachers. Employment of teachers held up decently during the recession, which is what you expect from government workers. But there’s been a years-long slow bleed that’s very unusual.