Guest View: Census snapshot – The past and the future

The recent release of the 1940 U.S. Census forms by the National Archives caused an Internet crash as millions of Americans went searching for the records of their families, loved ones, and old memories – and occasionally to see if someone was telling the truth about growing up in Chicago. Although it was difficult, I eventually found the record of my maternal grandmother, my mom at age 18, and my surviving 85-year-old aunt as a 13-year-old sixth-grader.

According to a census bureau information bulletin titled “1940-2010: How has America changed” nearly 1 in 6 people counted in the 1940 Census were also counted in 2010, which says a lot about increased longevity.

When comparing information 72 years apart, one must use care to make sure it’s apples to apples. In housing costs, for example, you cannot compare rents without considering relative quality, which can be very different in everything from sanitation, to environment, to convenience, to safety. In 1940 the average rent for a rural, non-farm abode was only $18.35 a month, which is an inflation adjusted to $285 in 2010. However, 78.9 percent of those rural-farm homes had outside toilets and only 17.7 percent had running water. Today, the figure for homes with complete plumbing is over 99 percent.

Socially, the landscape has shifted dramatically away from marriage. In 1940 68 percent of women ages 20 to 34 were married. In 2010 that had dropped to 39 percent in that age group.

While marriage dropped, the rate of higher education increased; in 1940, 5.5 percent of men and 3.8 percent of women were college graduates; in 2010, about 28 percent of both men and women were college graduates.

Those are significant, but the biggest shift by far was in America’s top five industries. Some of the changes come as no surprise; here is the data from 1940’s 45 million employees. The fifth largest industry was Professional and Related Services with 7.4 percent of the nation’s employees; fourth was Personal Services, 8.9 percent; third was the Retail Trade, 14 percent; second was Agriculture, 18.5 percent, and first – still before WWII and on the trailing edge of the Great Depressions – was Manufacturing, having 23.4 percent of the nation’s employees.

The workforce tripled to 139 million employees by 2010; Agriculture, previously number two, and Personal Services, previously number four, were completely gone from the top-five industries list. Construction was now fifth, 6.2 percent; fourth was Manufacturing now only 10.4 percent; third was an expanded definition of professional services called Professional, Scientific, Management, Administrative and Waste Management Services, 10.6 percent; the Retail Trade shrunk to 11.7 percent but moved up to second. First – the top industry in 2010 – was a hybrid category, Educational Services, Heath Care and Social Assistance, with 23.2 percent of the employees.

Educational services, heath care and social assistance are, essentially, public services. It is a government-centric grouping, and no matter how the Supreme Court rules on the individual mandate, health care is likely to become more so. Additionally, this category is larger than the next two combined.

One might say that we no longer make things, but we are more likely to service human needs; nevertheless, there is a disturbing aspect to this trend. At some point we have to be able to provide for our own material needs because the capability to make or fix things can be lost to a society. Our investment in education appears to be producing graduates, but not the skills that translate to material infrastructure. It’s not just a matter of bringing manufacturing back, but providing the workforce that can bring it back at the required technological level. That’s the real economic challenge over the next 20 years.

Marty Richman is a Hollister resident. He writes a regular column for the Free Lance.

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