September 3, 2015

8 facts about American workers

Although the U.S. economy is recovering and appears to be on stable ground compared with other parts of the world, there’s still a lot of debate over how to best secure the future for American workers. Some Democrats have pushed for raising the federal minimum wage, and the Obama administration has proposed new overtime rules that would make millions of Americans eligible for extra pay. Meanwhile, some Republican presidential candidates have maintained that labor unions are too powerful and impede business.

Just in time for Labor Day, here are eight facts about the state of American workers.

A Long Downward Slide for Unions1Over the past three decades, the share of American workers who are union members has fallen by about half.  Union membership peaked in 1954 at nearly 35% of all U.S. wage and salary workers, but it’s fallen to just over 11% in 2014.

The biggest decline in union representation from 2000 to 2014 was in installation, maintenance and repair occupations, a broad grouping that includes everything from auto mechanics to avionics technicians and watch repairers. Americans have mixed views about this trend, with about as many people saying it’s mostly a bad thing as there are saying it’s mostly a good .

2There is broad support for the right of workers to unionize across a range of occupations. Among six industry categories we asked about, about eight in-ten Americans (82%) say manufacturing and factory workers should have that right. Big majorities backed the rights of transit workers, police officers and public school teachers to do the same. About six-in-ten (62%) said fast-food workers should be able to unionize, while 35% opposed the .

3Millennials are now the largest generation in the labor force. More than one-in-three American workers today are Millennials (adults ages 18 to 34 in 2015), and this year they surpassed Generation X (ages 35 to 50 in 2015) to become the largest share of the American workforce. Gen Xers’ place as the dominant generation within the labor force was very short-lived – just three years. (On a chart, they are easily overlooked, sandwiched between Baby Boomers and Millennials.)

U.S. Gender Wage Gap Smaller Among Younger Workers4American women earn 83 cents on the dollar compared with men, but the youngest working women are narrowing that gap substantially. Among the American workforce, there are many gaps in earnings among groups, such as by race and ethnicity. In 2014, among workers ages 25 to 34, women’s hourly earnings were 91% those of men, according to an analysis of median hourly wages that includes full- and part-time workers. Among even younger working adults, ages 16 to 24, the gender wage gap lessens further, with women making 93% of what men earn.

Yet there is no guarantee that today’s young women will sustain their near parity with men in earnings in the years to come. Trends show that young women fall further behind their same-aged male counterparts as they age and deal with the responsibilities of parenthood and family.

5On virtually every measure of economic well-being and career attainment, young college graduates are outperforming their peers with less education to a greater extent than in the past. With the cost of college soaring and student debt rising in recent years, there’s been much debate about the value of a college education. Our economic analysis finds that college graduates ages 25 to 32 working full time in 2013 earned more annually—about $17,500 more—than employed young adults holding only a high school diploma. The pay gap was significantly smaller in previous generations. College-educated adults also are more likely to be employed full time than their less-educated counterparts and significantly less likely to be unemployed (3.8% vs. 12.2%).

6A much smaller share of U.S. teens work today compared with in the 1970s. In the ’70s and ’80s, most teens could expect to be working at least part of their summer vacation.

But the share of teens working summer jobs has dwindled since the early 1990s; last summer, fewer than a third of teens had a job. Teen employment has fallen with every economic recession. After bottoming out in 2010 and 2011 at 29.6%, the teen summer employment rate has barely budged – it was 31.3% last summer.

7The idea of raising the federal minimum wage has broad popular support, but less among Republicans. Overall, 73% of people we surveyed in early 2014 favored increasing the minimum to $10.10 an hour, but efforts by Democrats in Congress to move ahead with such a bill have stalled. Nine-in-ten Democrats surveyed backed a minimum wage increase, but support among Republicans was more divided, with 53% supporting an increase and 43% opposed. Twenty-nine states, plus the District of Columbia and nearly two dozen cities and counties, have set their own higher minimums, citing the high cost of living. The restaurant/food service industry is the single biggest employer of workers who make more than the minimums set in their states but less than proposed $10.10 federal minimum.

8New overtime rules could make more than 5 million white-collar workers newly eligible for extra pay. A new proposal by the Labor Department would increase the salary threshold used to help determine eligibility for overtime. Most of the newly eligible under the proposal would be retail and food service managers, office administrators, low-level financial workers and other modestly paid managers and office professionals, according to our estimates.


Category: 5 Facts

Topics: Business and Labor, Educational Attainment, Gender, Generations and Age, Work and Employment

  1. Photo of Sara Kehaulani Goo

    is a senior digital editor at Pew Research Center.


  1. James Price12 months ago

    Coming upon the labor day weekend; I wonder what percentage of the pastors will say anything meaningful on behalf of the laborers in their congregation? First the Lord always showed mercy and concern for the ” little ones” in society. I listen to several sermons via the web each week and I just don’t hear any of the preachers speaking up for the people who bear most of the work that makes our society run. For the last forty years the rewards of society have shifted more and more to the stockholders and the CEO’s and absentee owners and left so many workers without enough to truly support their families, even though they work a full forty hour week. The bible says that a laborer is worthy of his [ or her hire ] and I have spent a lot of time studying the life of Jacob and how that he had to bargain hard, with patience, to get what was rightfully his. [ Genesis Chapter 30. ]
    You would think that the pastors would know that the more they preached for workers to get a fair share in life the more they would receive in tithes and offerings as those who wanted to be obedient in fulfilling the golden rule for their employees, increased their salaries to a living wage.

    1. T K12 months ago

      TV and radio preachers are mostly conservative. If you find a more progressive congregation.. Episcopal, Unitarian, United Church of Christ, Evangelical Lutheran Church of America.. Churches who support things like gay marriage, equality and other progressive Christian ideals you may find what you are looking for.