It’s an understatement to say that the American workforce is different today than a century ago. Even though comparing our era to previous ones is futile, one can’t help but marvel at how far the American worker has advanced.

Glancing back 100+ years

In 1913, President Woodrow Wilson signed the Federal Reserve Act (Off-site). Also that year, Wilson appointed Royal Meeker — who served as a Princeton economics professor while Wilson was university president — as the Commissioner of Labor Statistics for the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).

Similar to the wide range of data (Off-site) that the Federal Reserve System gathers, the BLS is a governmental statistical agency that collects, processes, analyzes and disseminates essential statistical data. The Monthly Labor Review (Off-site), which was first published by Meeker in 1915, is the principal journal of fact, analysis and research from the BLS.

During the early 1900s, the shift from agriculture to urbanization changed the nature of work and the daily lives of workers. Let’s take a look at a few startling workforce statistics:

  • In the early 1900s, most jobs required little formal schooling and the majority of the population had not gone past elementary school. In fact, only 18% had completed high school at that time compared to more than 86% of today’s workers.   
  • According to the 1915 Census, the average U.S. worker made $687 a year. The BLS recently reported that the median wage for U.S. workers in the first quarter of 2019 was $905 per week or $47,060 per year for a 40-hour workweek.
  • It wasn’t until 1919 that about 50% of the American workforce had a workweek capped at 48 hours. The manufacturing workweek is now about 40 hours, although its length is somewhat sensitive to business conditions, dropping during recessions and climbing during recoveries and economic expansions.
  • Dangerous working conditions have declined. The BLS reported 61 deaths out of 100,000 workers in 1913 compared to today’s rate of 3.3 deaths out of 100,000 workers.

A glimpse at today’s U.S. workforce

If you’d like to know more about the status of today’s workers, check out the Federal Reserve System’s wide variety of resources that include:

What does the future look like?

Over the decades, the nature of work has been shaped by countless forces, including technology, globalization, education and communications. Future transformations are sure to be fast-paced, far-reaching, dramatic and impactful. Will anything remain the same?


United States Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics (Off-site)

Federal Reserve Board (Off-site)