100 years later: How things have changed

Carvin Phillips raises a dust as he harvests soybeans at his farm in Macedonia. Farming is a lot different from what it was 100 years ago, when nearly a third of the workforce farmed. (Photo/wade spees)

One hundred years ago life in what was even then the richest nation on earth, the United States, was, for most Americans, a daily confrontation with crowded housing, unsanitary living conditions, low and inconsistent incomes, long hours at work, little education, little travel and little leisure. Families were large, but child deaths were frequent. Economic recessions were deep and occurred more often. There was no national system of old age pensions or health care.

This look backward in time, thanks to a new government publication, gives us a yardstick to measure the amazing material progress the nation has made in the last century, and a reason for optimism about the future.

Not all government prose is indecipherable. In a short, informative and very readable essay to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the U.S. Department of Labor’s flagship publication, the Monthly Labor Review, government economist Carol Boyd Leon has produced a fascinating glimpse of how far our lives have improved in the past century and other important ways we have changed.

The pattern of jobs 100 years ago was very different from today. Workers were paid badly in comparable terms and worked longer hours. Work was more hazardous, housing units were smaller and much more crowded, the population was younger, families were larger, with higher childhood mortality, and overall health was worse.

For example, nearly a third of the work force was employed in farming. Today, it is about one percent. Another 38 percent worked mainly with their hands in mining, construction, production and maintenance. Today it is only 20 percent.

While the nation’s population has more than tripled, the total number of jobs has increased nearly sixfold. But the number of factory jobs has grown by only 50 percent. There are nearly 16 times more jobs in finance and real estate, 15 times more jobs in education, 22 times more government jobs and a whopping 53 times more jobs in “other professional services,” especially in health care.

Back then one in five women was in the labor force; today more than half are. Meanwhile, men’s participation in the labor force has fallen from around 85 percent to just under 70 percent, mainly due to more years spent in education and retirement. High school graduates “were a rarity” in the population 100 years ago where education mainly stopped after primary school and boys and girls entered the work force at 14. And there was no Social Security.

The average male worker in 1915 put in 48 hours or more a week, often including work on Saturday, and earned roughly $16,000 a year in today’s dollars, just 40 percent of today’s median wage. Then, as now, women earned less than men. This comparison leaves out fringe benefits, including vacation, pensions and health care that were “meager or … non-existent one hundred years ago.”

Housing was, in general, smaller and because of large families more crowded. “Few of the homes of working-class families had running water, and almost none had hot running water,” says the study. Heating was by coal or wood stoves, houses were dirtier and harder to clean, few had electricity. About half of the population lived in small towns; many of the rest lived in crowded city tenements.

Poor health conditions contributed to many early childhood deaths, bringing down the average longevity of Americans at the time to 54.5 years, compared to 78 today. Most babies were born at home. The major killers of the day, aside from heart disease, were pneumonia, the flu and tuberculosis, diseases that have been tamed, or in the case of tuberculosis, almost eliminated by improved home sanitary conditions and better medical treatment.

Household budgets have changed enormously. Today we spend a smaller share on food, but much larger shares on housing and transportation.

Surprisingly, more than half of Americans at the time were under 25, due both to large families and rapid immigration. Today, despite similarly rapid immigration, that figure is only one third of the population, while the share of those 65 and older has grown from five percent to 14 percent.

Also surprisingly, there are more than 72,000 Americans today who are more than 100 years old and have lived to see all of these changes.

One thing is unchanged, however. In 1915, as today, a favorite breakfast was corn flakes.