The Difference Between Working Now and Thirty Years Ago

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Americans have always taken pride in their productivity—but working isn't what it used to be. Millennials are the largest group participating in the labor force and, like the jobs available, the environment is not the same as what their Gen X and Baby Boomer counterparts came of age in.

For example: worker productivity has grown 64.9 percent between 1979 and 2013. Myriad factors contribute to productivity but it begs a question: how different is the workforce from thirty years ago? To understand—and to find if we truly are more productive—let’s compare elements of productivity in the late seventies and early eighties with productivity today.

More Americans are employed today—but they’re not doing the same things.

One thing is undeniable when comparing workforces through time: more Americans have jobs today. In 1979, the unemployment rate was 5.8%, sloping upward in the early eighties between 7% and 9% as a result of a Reagan era recession. Compare this with 4.6% employment in 2016, a strong rebound from unemployment in 2008 through 2012 as a result of the Great Recession.

The landscape of employment is extremely different, too, as NPR reported in 2015. The most common job in the eighties was secretary work, representative of jobs going from factories to service providing. Today, the most common job is literally driving: truck, delivery, and tractor driving was the most common job in 2014. Last year, the largest occupation according to the Bureau Of Labor Statistics was retail sales. Clearly, work has become more service oriented.

The time spent working—and commuting to work—has shifted substantially.

As if America’s lack of vacation policies wasn’t enough proof, we as a nation are working a lot more today. As the Pew Research Center reports, the average hours worked per week have risen by 11%.

Getting to work also isn’t helping the work-life balance. In 2014, the Population Reference Bureau found that the average full-time worker in America spends 26 minutes commuting, up from 22 minutes at the beginning of 1980. Doesn't seem like a lot? Well, in total, that comes to 1.8 trillion minutes lost to commuting.

Obviously, workers are more connected than ever.

We all know this: the nature of how workers work has changed dramatically over the past three decades as personal computing and mobile phones have reshaped work.

Let’s start with computers. Pew reported in 2014 that 81% of US adults use computers somewhere in their lives—be it at work, home, or elsewhere—while 87% are connected by internet. But, in 1984, the Census Bureau found that 24.6% of workers used a computer at work, the majority of them in management or professional roles and working in finance, insurance, and real estate.

Moreover, today’s worker is intertwined in a network of devices that make them more productive. A survey conducted by the research firm Forrester in 2012 found 74% of global workers used two or more devices for work.

For better or worse, there is a catch embedded in these products: wasted time. In a 2014 survey by CareerBuilder, 24% of workers spend an hour on personal emails, calls, or texts while 21% spend an hour or more online focused on non-work related tasks.

Simple tasks weren't so simple before computers.

You might not think about this but something as small as a document was a lot of work to create in the 1980s. As history of word processing published in 1986 explains, advanced word processing technology was considered to be "working on more than one document at a time on the same screen." It was also a big deal that word processors could do more than process words: it was revolutionary for software to include other functions like bookkeeping and inventory. Beyond this, functions like grammar and spelling checks today didn't exist.

As far as sending a document in the 1980s, written, faxable memos were essential since email programs like Outlook weren't ubiquitous until the late 1980s. Fax machines eased communication because of speed, though they didn't fully threaten more traditional communication services like overnight mailing.

But today? Writing a document is one of the most basic functions of a computer. In addition to something as simple and utilitarian for document writing as Office, countless software programs exist to make working and communicating easier.

The funny thing you realize when comparing working today with working thirty years ago is that, yes, we work a lot more today but in a much more sophisticated manner. From sophisticated applications that computerize entire industries to workers being constantly connected through technology, today's worker would appear quite alien to workers thirty years ago.

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