We talked to 10 people who roughly represent the 164 million-person U.S. labor force. Ten Stories, one question: “Is the economy working for you?”
There’s a lot of data about the American workforce out there. Labor force statistics are some of the key indicators economists use to determine the health of the economy. But with all that data, there are, frankly, mixed signals about how workers are doing right now.
On the one hand, a lot of data suggests that things are going well. There are more and more jobs created every month, the unemployment rate is historically low and wages are finally starting to go up. But from the conversations we have regularly with people living in the day-to-day economy, we know how hard it can be to make it in this country.
That’s why we are launching our new series, “United States of Work,” in which we’ll turn the data we have about the U.S. labor force into real people who can talk to us. Using Bureau of Labor Statistics data to guide us, we identified 10 individuals, that when taken together, roughly match the characteristics of the labor force as a whole and asked how the economy is working for them.
You can meet them here or keep scrolling to read about how they were chosen.
Who’s in the labor force?
The U.S. labor force as defined by the Bureau of Labor Statistics is a subset of the U.S. population that includes all people over the age of 16 who are available for work. That’s all employed people and unemployed people who are looking for work.
Who’s not in the labor force?
The U.S. labor force does not include people who do not have a job and are not looking for one. That could be stay-at-home parents, retirees, active duty military personnel, incarcerated people and people who want a job but are not currently looking for work because they don’t think there are jobs for them or because of health, family, transportation or other issues.
Condensing the 164 million-person labor force into 10 individuals requires significant rounding and leaves out many experiences common to millions of people. This project is not meant to provide a comprehensive picture of every worker in America or even a statistically representative sample. It’s meant to show a wide range of stories about the economy guided by data on labor force characteristics.
How we decided whom to look for
- The data we looked at came from the Current Population Survey tables published by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. We used 2019 annual averages.
- We decided on a sample of 10 people because that made it easier to divide up the labor force using percentages.
- We did the math to convert the CPS numbers on “employed persons” into a percentage of the labor force.
- We used that data to imagine what characteristics the U.S. labor force might have if it were condensed into 10 people. For example, since about 80% of the labor force works full time, we knew that 8 out of the 10 people in our sample should work full time.
- The characteristics we focused on were occupation, age, gender, employment status (full or part time), educational attainment and race/ethnicity.
- A caveat: The goal of the project was to talk about the jobs that people work, so the characteristic we focused on the most was occupation. We were willing to make some exceptions in the other categories based on whom we were able to find and the stories we wanted to tell. Our exceptions are noted below.
Here’s how we approached each category
This was the labor force characteristic that was most important to us — we wanted to understand what types of jobs people work. If you’re a regular listener to Marketplace, you hear a lot from farmers and people in manufacturing, but they actually make up a small percentage of jobs — farmers, ranchers and agricultural managers account for around 0.6% of the total labor force. Other farm, fishing and forestry workers are less than 0.71% combined. The biggest group of workers are in management, business and other professional occupations like health care practitioners, teachers, lawyers, scientists, engineers and managers that account for around 40% of the labor force.
In our sample, the “management, professional and related occupations” category is represented by Dr. Scott Anzalone, theater manager Stephanie Silverman, community college dean Derrick Lindstrom and certified public accountant Michael Durant. Hair stylist Ashley Nelson and bartender Neil Cairns represent the “service occupations” category. Kate Bellino, a new account representative at a bank, and convenience store cashier Gaile Harrell represent the “sales and office occupations” category. The “natural resources, construction and maintenance” category is represented by construction worker Rocio Montano, and the “production, transportation and material moving occupations” category is represented by truck driver Steve Fields.
You can see the full list of occupations in each category on the BLS website.
One more note on occupation: The Current Population Survey also collects data about the industries people work in. We chose to focus on occupation rather than industry because we wanted our sample to be representative of jobs in this economy. Occupation refers to work people do, whereas industry is determined by the company they do it for. Think about it this way: If you are a lawyer for a food and beverage company, your day to day experience is probably going to be more similar to that of other lawyers than to other workers in the food and beverage industry.
We did some rounding and included five women and five men.
We looked for two people who were 55 years and older, one person who was 16 to 24 years old and six who were 25 to 54. Wait a minute, that’s only nine people … you’re right! Rounding will do that sometimes. We used that lingering extra person as a wild card.
Since unemployed people represent less than 4% of the labor force, everyone in our sample is employed. Full-time workers (people who usually work 35 or more hours a week) make up nearly 80% of the labor force, while part-time workers (those who usually work any amount less than 35 hours) account for nearly 17%. Therefore, we included two part-time workers in our sample — bartender Neil Cairns and cashier Gaile Harrell.
Educational attainment for people 25 years and older
The Bureau of Labor Statistics only provides data on the educational attainment for people 25 years and older. Since our sample includes two people who are currently 24 years old but will turn 25 this year, we calculated this category as if all 10 were 25 years and older. We identified four people with a bachelor’s degree or higher, three people with some college or an associate degree, and three people who have not been to college.
|Educational attainment||Percentage of labor force 25 years and older|
|Some college or associate’s degree||26%|
|Bachelor’s degree or higher||41%|
Here’s a summary of data on race/ethnicity of the labor force from the Current Population Survey:
|Race/Ethnicity||Percentage of labor force|
|Black or African American||13%|
|Hispanic or Latino ethnicity||18%|
The estimates for race/ethnicity groups do not sum to totals because a) data is not present for all races and b) persons whose ethnicity is identified as Hispanic or Latino may be of any race.
In this cohort, we ended up with one person who identifies as Asian, one who identifies as Hispanic/Latino, one who identifies as black/African American, one who identifies as black/African American and Hispanic/Latino, and six who identify as white.
We didn’t create specific rules for location, but wanted a geographically diverse sample. Here are the places where the 10 people in our sample are located: