Labor Markets in the Twentieth Century

Claudia Goldin

NBER Historical Working Paper No. 58
Issued in June 1994
NBER Program(s):Development of the American Economy

The study of the labor market across the past hundred years reveals enormous progress and also that history repeats itself and has come full circle in some ways. Progress has been made in the rewards of labor -- wages, benefits, and increased leisure through shorter hours, vacation time, sick leave, and earlier retirement. Labor has been granted added security on the job and more safety nets when unemployed, ill, and old. Progress in the labor market has interacted with societal changes. Women's increased participation in the paid labor force is the most significant. The virtual elimination of child and full-time juvenile labor is another. Two of the most pressing economic issues of our day demonstrate that history repeats itself. Labor productivity has been lagging since the 1970s. It was equally sluggish at other junctures in American history, but the present has unique features. The current slowdown in the United States has been accompanied by a widening in the wage structure. Rising inequality is a far more serious problem because of the coincidence. The wage structure was as wide in 1940 as today but there is, to date, no hard evidence when it began its upward trend. The wage structure has, therefore, come full circle to what it was more than a half century ago. Union strength has also come full circle to that at the turn of this century.

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Document Object Identifier (DOI): 10.3386/h0058

forthcoming in S.L. Engeman and R.E. Gallman, The Cambridge History of the United States, 1996

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