70-Year-Old Census Records Highlight Shifts in the Working World

by Salary.com Staff - Original publish date: September 10, 2013

Seventy-two years ago, the house I grew up in was occupied by the DeLong family: a husband and wife, one son, two daughters. The husband worked as a salesman, his son as a clerk. None of the women held a job. 

The neighbors were laborers and waitresses and machinists. One industrious man worked 60-hour weeks at a poultry farm; another unfortunate resident had been unemployed for more than three years when census-takers knocked on his door in 1940. 

For many of us today, working means cubicles and computers and commutes. It means colleagues who have graduated high school, and many who have also finished college. It means earning tens of thousands of dollars every year. 

But recently released U.S. Census records from 1940 offer a very intimate glimpse at what the working world was like more than seven decades ago. 

The country was recovering from the Great Depression, and on the cusp of entering World War II. Swing music dominated the airwaves and a gallon of gas cost just 18 cents. And the working world was a very different place. 

Perhaps the most obvious change is that we moved out of the fields and factories and into the office. Back then, respondents worked in cotton mills, farms and shipyards; today they name computer stores, software companies and airlines. 

In 1940, manufacturing, agriculture and retail were the industries with the most employees. Retail is still in the top three today, joined by the education and health care sector, and professional and administrative services. Agriculture has fallen off particularly sharply: In 1940, the census counted 5.1 million farmers as compared to the 2010 count of just 613,000. 

The 1940 census also indicates the social norms about who is considered working age have shifted over the last 70 years. Then, the survey looked at how many adults aged 14 and older were in the workforce; today the census counts adults 16 and older. 

More of us are working today -- 64.4 percent, up from 52.2 percent in 1940 -- and we are, unsurprisingly, earning more. Men had a median annual income of $956 in 1940, with women earning a median of $592 per year. By 2010, those numbers were up to $33,276 and $24,157, respectively. 

As these numbers indicate, the earnings gap between men and women has closed a bit, but still remains significant. Women now make 74 cents for every dollar men earn, up from 62 cents in 1940. 

Improved access to education over the years means that the average worker today has attained a higher level of education than in 1940. Today, more than 85 percent of those 25 and older have a high school degree, as compared to just 25 percent in 1940. The number of college graduates has jumped from 5 percent to 28 percent.

These numbers, of course, are nationwide averages. But, for anyone interested in learning more about their own neighborhoods, the census release offers page after page of searchable detailed records.

Just visit the website of the National Archives to start your own search.