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Labor Markets in History

Paper Session

Saturday, Jan. 6, 2018 12:30 PM - 2:15 PM

Marriott Philadelphia Downtown, Meeting Room 305
Hosted By: Economic History Association
  • Chair: Werner Troesken, University of Pittsburgh

Technology and Jobs in the Long Run

James Bessen
Boston University


Automation does not always reduce employment in affected industries. In manufacturing, jobs grew along with productivity for a century or more. Only later did productivity gains bring declining employment. While the literature on structural change provides reasons for the decline in the manufacturing share of employment, few papers can explain both the rise and subsequent fall. This paper assembles up to two hundred years of data on employment, labor productivity, and per capita consumption for the US cotton textile, steel, and automotive industries. A simple model of consumer demand accurately predicts the rise and fall of production employment in each industry. This analysis highlights features of demand that affected the Industrial Revolution and later technological revolutions in important ways.

The Uneven Economic Advance of Mexican Americans Before World War II

Edward Kosack
Xavier University
Zachary Ward
Australian National University


Various explanations for Mexican immigrant and their descendant’s lagging economic progress in recent decades do not apply one hundred years ago: English skills were less valuable, inequality was decreasing, ethnic enclaves were smaller, and undocumented entry was not criminalized until 1929. Using new data from full-count censuses prior to 1940, we show that despite more favorable conditions, Mexican migrants were lower skilled than natives and other non-English-speaking Europeans, invested less in English skills after arrival, and remained in a uniquely low position for at least three to four generations. Since progress was slow both then and now, this suggests that relatively poor outcomes for Mexican Americans are partially due to factors that are constant across the last hundred years, such as discrimination, geographic isolation, or sorting into neighborhoods with lower quality schools.

Bad Luck or Bad Workers? A View of the Long-term Unemployed in the Great Depression Through Matched Census Records

Gabriel P. Mathy
American University
Paul Gaggl
University of North Carolina-Charlotte


In this paper, we use matched Census record from the 1940, 1930, 1920, and 1910 Censuses to see what the long-term unemployed, identified in 1940, looked like in previous Censuses. This will allow us to see the degree to which unemployment outcomes were determined by worker quality versus bad luck in being unemployed during the Depression. We also get a much richer view of the long-term unemployed as the Depression is ending, being able to see workers at a fine level of disaggregation. We can also see how those on emergency relief programs like the Works Progress Administration (WPA) compared versus other workers over these three decades.
Claude Diebolt
CNRS and University of Strasbourg
Belinda Archibong
Columbia University
Ethan Schmick
Washington and Jefferson College
JEL Classifications
  • N3 - Labor and Consumers, Demography, Education, Health, Welfare, Income, Wealth, Religion, and Philanthropy
  • J0 - General