A Century of Work: Gender, Labor Force Participation, and Occupational Attainment in the United States, 1880-1990

Research output: ThesisMaster's Thesis


American society changed immensely since the late nineteenth century. The evolution from an industrial to a post-industrial economy confronted successive cohorts with markedly different work and life opportunities. All classes and social groups had to accommodate themselves to this structural transformation, although their strategies and ability to exploit new options differed. Our knowledge of social and economic change over the last century is extensive but fragmentary, offering little basis for consistent comparisons between places or over long periods of time. New statistical evidence provides the opportunity to redress this deficiency. An integrated database combining millions of census records from 1880 to 1990 reveals the effect of long-term economic transformations on individuals and families across the nation. The experience of women in the economy changed dramatically since 1880. The official record of female labor force growth is distorted, however. The gendered assumptions underlying occupation statistics necessitate a significant upward revision of published female work rates before 1940. The evidence also reveals a key change in family income-earning strategies in the twentieth century: married female paid labor went from being the last resort of needy families to a means of increasing family consumption. This transformation to paid labor outside the home, spearheaded by wives in lower white-collar families, was integral to women's increased power in American society. As better jobs became accessible to women, the social status derived from work increasingly spurred middle-class female employment. The changing pattern of male economic opportunity is best reflected in men's position within the occupational structure. Economic rewards to specific jobs remained stable, but the entire occupational structure shifted upward as white-collar work grew at the expense of agriculture and unskilled labor. Although the economy steadily generated more better-paid occupations, men's access to desirable jobs was persistently stratified by race, nativity, and age. With few exceptions, the evolution to higher-status jobs meant greater opportunities for each successive birth cohort. Immigrants were disadvantaged in the labor market, but their sons consistently secured work of equal status to the native-born. In contrast, blacks of both sexes continue to suffer lower attainment than their human capital would suggest.
Original languageEnglish (US)
Place of PublicationMinneapolis, MN
StatePublished - 1997

Bibliographical note

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