September 1, 2016

10 facts about American workers

More than 150 million Americans are part of the U.S. workforce, and many of them (but not all) will spend the Labor Day national holiday away from their desks, cash registers and workbenches. We can’t predict how workers will use their day off, but we do know a fair amount about who they are, what they do and the U.S. working environment in general.

1A Long Downward Slide for UnionsOver 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 in 2015 the unionization rate was just 11.1%. However, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics the actual number of union members has risen in recent years, from 14.4 million in 2012 to 14.8 million last year.

The biggest decline in union representation from 2000 to 2015 was in construction and extraction occupations, from 23.8% to 17.2%. Unionization actually has risen, albeit slightly and from low bases, in a few occupational groups: In legal occupations, for instance, the unionization rate rose from 5.1% in 2000 to 5.6% last year.

2There is broad support for the right of workers to unionize across a range of occupations. Among six industry categories we asked about in spring 2015, about eight in-ten Americans (82%) said 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 that. In general, though, Americans have mixed views about the long-term decline in unionization: About as many people said it’s been mostly bad for the country as said it’s been mostly good, though by 52% to 40% they said it’s been mostly bad for working people.

3Most Americans work in the service sector. In July, 102.6 million people (71% of all nonfarm payroll employees) worked in private service-providing industries, according to the most recent employment report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Among the major industrial sectors, the biggest was education and health services (22.7 million workers), followed by professional and business services (20.3 million) and retail trade (just under 16 million). Manufacturing employed 12.3 million Americans; about 22.2 million were government workers (nearly two-thirds of them at the local level).

4Nearly 15 million Americans are self-employed. A Pew Research Center report last year found that 14.6 million people, or about 10 percent of the active workforce in 2014, were self-employed. Those self-employed people had an additional 29.4 million people working for them; together, they accounted for 44 million jobs, or 30% of the national workforce.

But only about a quarter of self-employed people (3.4 million) had employees of their own, and those who did have workers didn’t have very many: Among self-employed people with employees, the median in 2014 was three and the average was 8.6.

5Millennials are now the largest generation in the labor force. More than a third of American workers today are Millennials (adults ages 18 to 34 in 2015), and last year they surpassed Generation X (ages 35 to 50 in 2015) to become the single largest generational group in the U.S. 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.)

6U.S. Gender Wage Gap Smaller Among Younger WorkersAmerican women earn 83 cents on the dollar compared with men, but that gap is narrowing substantially among younger workers. In 2014, among workers ages 25 to 34, women’s hourly earnings were 91% those of men, according to a Pew Research Center 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. But there’s no guarantee that today’s young women will sustain their near-parity with men in earnings: The analysis shows that young women fall further behind their same-aged male counterparts as they age and deal with the responsibilities of parenthood and family.

Within the American workforce, there are many gaps in earnings between demographic groups, including by race and ethnicity. However, a separate Center analysis found that white men had higher median hourly earnings ($21) than every other racial/ethnic/gender subgroup except one: Asian men, whose median hourly earnings were $24.

7The wage gap between young workers with college degrees and their less-educated counterparts is the widest in decades. On virtually every measure of economic well-being and career attainment, young college graduates are outperforming their peers without a degree 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. An update of our previous economic analysis has found that college graduates ages 25 to 34 working full time in 2015 earned more annually – about $20,000 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 are significantly less likely to be unemployed: In July, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, unemployment was 2.5% among adults with a bachelor’s degree or higher, versus 5% among adults with only a high-school diploma.

8A much smaller share of U.S. teens work today compared with earlier decades. In the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s, most teens could expect to be working for at least part of their summer vacation. But the share of teens working summer jobs has dwindled since the early 1990s: After bottoming out in 2010 and 2011 at 29.6%, the teen summer employment rate edged higher but was still only 31.3% in summer 2014. (It had edged up to 32.3% by last summer.) The decline of summer jobs reflects an overall decline in youth employment in recent decades, a trend that’s also been observed in other advanced economies.

Another way of looking at youth employment, or the lack thereof, is by focusing on “NEETs” – that is, young people who are neither employed nor in education or training. Last year, 16.9% of all Americans ages 16 to 29 – or nearly 10.2 million young people – were NEETs. That’s actually a modest improvement: In 2013, the first year for which data are available, there were just over 11 million NEETs in the U.S., or 18.5% of the 16-to-29 population. Our analysis found that in the U.S., the NEET youth population is more female than male (57% to 43%); two-thirds have a high-school education or less, and blacks and Hispanics are more likely than whites to be NEETs.

9By contrast, more older Americans are working. In May of this year, 18.8% of Americans ages 65 and older – nearly 9 million people – reported being employed full- or part-time, continuing a steady increase since at least 2000. Older workers represented 5.9% of all employed Americans that month, up from 3.1% in May 2000. Older Americans were working at higher rates than in May 2008 – the only age brackets about which that can be said.

10Raising the minimum wage is a highly partisan issue. Overall, 58% of Americans favor increasing the federal minimum wage from $7.25 an hour to $15, according to an August Pew Research Center survey. There’s a stark divide between supporters of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump: 82% of Clinton supporters favor raising the federal minimum wage to $15, while nearly as many Trump supporters (76%) oppose it. Twenty-nine states, plus the District of Columbia and nearly two dozen cities and counties, have set their own higher minimums. But wide disparities in the cost of living in different parts of the country – and even within individual states – complicate the policy debate.

Note: This post has been updated and expanded since its original publication on Sept. 3, 2015.

Category: 5 Facts

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

  1. Photo of Drew DeSilver

    is a senior writer at Pew Research Center.


  1. cato1 month ago

    “American women earn 83 cents on the dollar compared with men…”

    This is the biggest lie ever told.

    1. Daniel Hawley1 month ago

      And your evidence to support your claim is….?

    2. Anonymous1 month ago

      What has your copious research and data revealed?

  2. Anonymous2 months ago

    I found this article to be very informative and helpcul. Good information.

  3. Anonymous2 months ago

    NEET would be interesting for as long as there is data.

  4. Anonymous2 months ago

    Excellent article!

  5. Blaire McPherson2 months ago

    Fascinating article, well written and graphed. Thank you, Mr. DeSilver.

  6. Packard Day2 months ago

    The lot of a low skilled and/or low educated American worker is not one to be envied these days. He is finding himself increasingly hard pressed by rapid advances in automation, global free trade competition involving workers who are willing to do the same for less pay, and of course, illegal…ahhh…undocumented…immigration of similarly skilled workers. What is resulting is a movement toward a dystopic country of elite, highly educated & skilled managers whose primary job is to lead a work force that is less and less needed for actual production.

    Hold on tight folks. What comes next may not be especially pretty. _______________

    [see: Player Piano (1952) Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.]

  7. James Price1 year 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 K1 year 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.