previous part
Eleven The Impact of Aging on the Employment of Men in American Working-Class Communities at the End of the Nineteenth Century
next chapter

Eleven
The Impact of Aging on the Employment of Men in American Working-Class Communities at the End of the Nineteenth Century

Roger L. Ransom and Richard Sutch

At the end of the nineteenth century, one out of every three males in the U.S. labor force relied on a wage-earning job as their principal source of economic support and long-term security.[1] For working-class families in the cities, this dependence on wage employment posed a growing challenge as the head of the household grew older. The older worker found it increasingly difficult to support himself and his immediate family from wage income. Perhaps the most important factor contributing to this problem is the tendency with advancing age for health and physical ability to decline. As a consequence, the economic productivity of the worker declined and his daily wage fell after he passed "middle age." In the absence of formal arrangements to offset the effects of this decline in productivity, workers were obliged to look for alternative arrangements to maintain their purchasing power as they became older.

The prospect of declining productivity—with its concomitant decrease in wage earnings—was a bleak one for the fraction of the population who knew no other occupation than industrial wage labor. So long as the industrial wage system paid employees their current marginal product, employers had no incentive to terminate the employment of older workers with the firm, and the reduced wage offered by employers could be expected to reduce the supply of labor forthcoming. However, if wages tended to be sticky, then older workers would be increasingly overpaid, and this would give the employer an incentive to discharge the worker or at least to minimize the number of days the older worker would be employed. Either way, the incomes of older workers would be reduced.

All of this was not lost on workers, who clearly recognized that their economic situation would ultimately deteriorate. Workers anticipated the problem and tried to accumulate assets during their peak earning years to draw


304

upon later. They also sought to make new arrangements with their employer to ensure greater job security. In this way, labor markets gradually evolved long-term (often implicit) contracts that underpaid younger workers, overpaid older workers, provided security of employment, and set a predetermined age for retirement. Yet we know surprisingly little about how these arrangements, which offer a considerable degree of economic security for older workers today, emerged in the United States over the past century.

In this chapter, we look to the period just prior to the turn of the century, before many of the features taken for granted today had evolved. We use census data and a series of surveys of working-class households taken in the 1890s by state bureaus of labor statistics to examine the situation of older workers. Our attention is drawn to four general aspects of labor arrangements at that time.

1. The phenomenon of voluntary retirement from the industrial labor force was already firmly in place by 1900. By that time workers were aware of the threat of dependency in old age, and many had accumulated sufficient assets to quit work at ages ranging from 55 to 65.

2. Not all workers were able to retire. Our survey data provide considerable support for the hypothesis that many older workers moved to less demanding jobs as they aged. In an earlier study we termed this phenomenon downward occupational mobility (Ransom and Sutch 1986a ).

3. There seems little doubt that this life cycle deskilling of workers is mirrored in the returns to labor. One of the most striking features of the labor markets to emerge from our examination of the data is a hump-shaped profile of income and earnings that shows up across a wide variety of locations.

4. The decline in earnings was not only a result of lower daily wages. An examination of the days lost to various causes clearly suggests that older workers also experienced a different pattern of employment and that this pattern was related to both sickness and involuntary unemployment, on the one hand, and a greater consumption of free time, on the other.

Retirement at the End of the Nineteenth Century

The propensity of older American men to retire from the labor force after the age of 60 is well documented and well studied for the period following World War II. Until recently, however, information on the period before 1940 was sketchy. In the absence of statistical data, the common belief shared by economists and historians was that retirement was virtually unknown at the beginning of the twentieth century, made its appearance shortly after 1900, and then gradually increased in the years


305

Fig. 11.1.
Labor force participation, males aged 60 and over, 1870-1980.

leading up to 1940.[2] We challenged this view, compiling new evidence on labor force participation for the period from 1870 to 1940 which suggests that retirement was common throughout the entire period and that retirement rates were stable before they began a marked increase in the late 1930s.[3]

Figure 11.1 summarizes our present view of the trend in labor force participation for men 60 and over for this period. Retirement was not unusual at the turn of the century; in 1900, the probability of eventual retirement for a 32-year-old man was more than 35 percent. Indeed, national retirement rates for males were about the same in 1870 (35.8 percent) as they were in 1930 (35.5 percent). The propensity to retire began a remarkable ascendancy sometime in the late 1930s or early 1940s and has continued steadily throughout the postwar period.[4]

An examination of the impact of aging on the employment of men around the turn of the century presents a unique research opportunity to reexamine the causes and role of retirement at a time when social security benefits did not exist and few company pensions were vested in the worker. Retirement in this era was largely financed from savings accumulated while working.[5] The relatively high proportion of older males who remained at jobs in the late-nineteenth-century labor market suggests that the experience of these men was rather different from that of the current generation of retirement-aged men. Here we will explore that experience using as our guide a rich body of data collected at the end of the nineteenth century by


306

state governments interested in examining the working conditions in the United States.

The Surveys of Working-Class Households

In 1869, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts established the first state bureau of labor statistics in an effort to collect and present statistical data on the conditions of labor to the state legislature. Under the direction of Carroll D. Wright, who became chief in 1873, the Massachusetts bureau pioneered the canvassing of households to collect dam on the occupation, wages, demographic characteristics, and working conditions of "ordinary workers." Wright insisted that all of the data collected had to be made available for these surveys to have scientific respectability and political influence. Accordingly, in the Sixth Annual Report for 1875, the Massachusetts bureau published all of the data from each of the 397 individual responses to a survey taken the previous year.[6] The success of the dam-collecting efforts and the political impact of the published reports prompted other states to follow Massachusetts' lead and create similar agencies dedicated to the collection of survey data on working conditions. These state bureaus conducted numerous surveys of workers in the late 1880s and in the early to mid-1890s, and, following Wright's example, each individual response was published in the Annual Reports .[7]

While the range of issues dealt with by the bureaus varied from state to state, it is clear that economic and social issues prominent at the time that the surveys were taken shaped the questions being asked. Every survey included questions on working conditions that provide data on occupation, hours worked, wage rates, and in many instances, the number of years of tenure with the employer and within the occupation. Most surveys included several questions dealing with immigration (place of birth, place of parents' birth, years in the United States, funds on arrival), union membership, and newspaper subscriptions. Concern over unemployment produced detailed questions into the amount of time "lost" from work and the reasons for lost time. Finally, there was an evident concern about the ability of working-class households to meet their expenses, which led to questions about income, expenses, and ownership of assets such as houses, life insurance, and bank accounts. These economic data are combined with demographic information on the age of the worker and the size of his or her family and the number of dependents.

These surveys, together with the various "special reports" prompted by the depressed conditions in the 1890s, provide an extraordinary window through which economic historians can examine the economic and social situation of workers at the end of the nineteenth century. Yet until very recently, when the advent of microcomputers made it feasible to put these


307

data into machine-readable form, the rich volume of data contained in these state reports remained largely untapped by researchers.[8] In 1989, we began, in collaboration with Susan Carter, a systematic attempt to create a machine-readable database of macroeconomic data extracted from a selected subset of the more than one hundred separate reports published between 1874 and 1900.[9]

This chapter draws on the responses reported by male workers in ten surveys of working-class households conducted between 1884 and 1896 by the states of Maine, New Jersey, Michigan, Iowa, Kansas, and California. The broad features of the surveys are summarized in table 11.1. Three of the surveys (California, Maine, and Kansas) canvass workers in a large number of occupations and industries across the entire state; the others concentrate on specific industries or occupations within a state. Taken together, these surveys represent a total of 38,776 responses by male workers to questions covering a wide range of topics relating to working conditions.

Our primary focus is on workers in manufacturing. Retirement was primarily an urban nonagricultural phenomenon. Farmers and rural workers in general were less likely to retire, or at least less likely to report themselves without an occupation.[10] However, to provide an occasional comparison, we have also drawn on data from a Michigan canvass of farmworkers taken in 1895.[11]

We should note at the outset several features of these surveys that affect the scope of our analysis. First is the fact that because the bureaus canvassed

TABLE 11.1
Worker Surveys Used in This Study

     

Number of Respondents

Date

State

Description

Total

Men

Women

1890

Maine

Manufacturing workers in 33 towns

1,084

1,012

72

1888-1890

New Jersey

Workers in 6 industriesa

12,821

12,821

0

1888

Michigan

Stone and clay workersb

719

719

0

1889

Michigan

Furniture industry workers

5,419

5,203

216

1893

Michigan

Railroad employees

6,051

6,051

0

1894

Michigan

Farm laborers

7,900

5,600

2,300

1895

Michigan

Hack and bus line employees

1,950

1,950

0

1895

Michigan

Owners of hacks and drays

1,250

1,250

0

1884

Iowa

Teachers

347

181

166

1884-1887

Kansas

Manufacturing workers in the state

1,165

1,165

0

1892

California

Workers in San Francisco

3,493c

2,824

634

 

Total

   

42,199

38,776

3,388

a Glassmaking, pottery, hat making, and iron mining were covered throughout the state. The building trades and printing were covered in Essex County and the cities of Trenton, Elizabeth, Paterson, and Jersey city.

b Fire clay, slate, coal, grindstones, gypsum, and stone.

c The gender of 35 respondents was not recorded. These 35 workers were excluded from the analysis.


308

only those workers who are in the labor force, older workers who have left the workforce for any reason will not be included.[12] Also evident from the data of table 11.1 is the absence of female workers from most of these surveys. Except in a few cases (such as the survey of "domestic farmworkers" in Michigan) in which they explicitly targeted female laborers, the bureaus focused their efforts on men. However, the absence of data on female workers should have a relatively small impact on our analysis of older workers, since at this time the female labor force comprised primarily young, unmarried women (Goldin 1990). Finally, any generalizations from these data must also take into account the rather arbitrary collection of cities and towns included in the surveys and must recognize that these are cross-sectional , not longitudinal , data.

Evidence of Downward Occupational Mobility

We begin by examining the age distribution of the workers canvassed in seven surveys mentioned in table 11.1. In all these cases, the intent of those conducting the survey was to obtain a representative sample of workers who fell within the scope of the different investigations. In Maine, Michigan, and California, the questionnaires were administered in person by agents trained for the job. In Kansas and Iowa, questionnaires were distributed through the mail. While little is said about the process by which workers were located and their cooperation secured, we have no reason to believe that a conscious bias for or against including older workers was present. Nevertheless, it is clear that all seven surveys overrepresent workers in their 20s and 30s and have surprisingly few workers over the age of 55. In figure 11.2, the age distributions of respondents are presented as smoothed polynomials in age.[13] The age distribution of all employed men derived from the 1900 census of the U.S. population is shown on the graph to provide a calibration of the distributions from the state surveys.[14]

We offer two explanations for the relative shortage of older workers in these surveys compared to the United States as a whole. First, all the surveys plotted in figure 11.2 concentrated on the nonagricultural population of cities and towns. We believe that retirement rates were likely to be much higher there than in rural districts and on farms. Second, since these surveys concentrated on manufacturing and building trades, we suspect that the age distributions reflect the impact of downward occupational mobility. As workers aged they left (or were fired from) the higher-paying—but also more physically demanding—jobs in these sectors and took lower-paying, lower-status, and less demanding jobs in other sectors. In an earlier article, we called this phenomenon "on-the-job" retirement (Ransom and Sutch 1986a ). We presented evidence from the censuses of 1870, 1880, and 1900 to indicate that this type of age-related deskilling was a common late-nineteenth-century


309

Fig. 11.2.
Age distribution of respondents: Seven state labor surveys and the U.S. census.

phenomenon. Downward occupational mobility is perhaps even more evident in the age distributions from the four industry-specific surveys included in figure 11.2. The surveys of stone and clay workers and furniture industry workers from Michigan and the survey of Iowa teachers all reveal a marked deficit of older male workers relative to the 1900 standard. While the teaching profession may well be a special case, we suggest that the absence of older workers in the two Michigan surveys is largely explained by the departures produced by downward occupational mobility.[15]

Decline of Incomes and Wage Rates with Age

Part of the explanation for the downward occupational mobility revealed by the surveys of industrial workers is suggested by the earnings profiles we have derived from these data. Figure 11.3 presents the income profiles from eight of the data sets. Each distribution shows a hump-shaped pattern, with a tendency for annual incomes to fall markedly at older ages.[16] If this cross-sectional view can be taken as a reflection of the actual or expected experience of a worker as he aged, then the declining returns from industrial employment may well have helped induce an occupational change. There is only very limited longitudinal evidence available to test whether or not we


310

Fig. 11.3.
Age profile of annual earnings: Eight state surveys.

Fig. 11.4.
Perception of current economic well-being relative to five years earlier, Michigan stone and clay workers, 1888.


311

may safely infer this impact of aging from cross-sectional data. However, two of the surveys, the Michigan stone and clay workers in 1888 and the Michigan survey of railroad employees in 1893, did ask workers whether they were better or worse off (in economic terms) in the year of the survey than they had been five years earlier. The proportion of negative answers for the stonecutters is plotted by age in figure 11.4. After about age 45, the proportion of negative answers rises sharply, suggesting that a substantial fraction of the older workers in this industry had indeed experienced a recent decline in their annual earnings. The proportion of workers reporting no change falls continuously. The data for the Michigan railroad workers, which is a much larger sample published five years later, is presented in figure 11.5. The pattern is similar to that of the stonecutters, although economic conditions had clearly deteriorated.[17] If anything, figure 11.5 suggests that declining income for railroad workers began even before the age of 40, confirming the impression given by the cross-sectional data of figure 11.3.

The decline in earnings as workers aged was produced through the combination of two separate phenomena. First, daily wage rates fell with age after reaching a peak that occurred in some occupations as early as when the workers reached their late 20s. Second, the number of days workers worked for pay during the year fell as workers aged. We first turn our attention to the cross sections of wage rates revealed in our data sets. Figure 11.6 presents the age profiles of daily wage rates reported by the workers in the sep-

Fig. 11.5.
Perception of current economic well-being relative to
 five years earlier, Michigan railroad employees, 1893.


312

Fig. 11.6.
Age profile of daily wage rates: Six state surveys.

arate surveys. If we assume that these labor markets were largely free from the long-term implicit contracts that characterize modern labor markets, then an obvious reason for older workers to be paid less than younger workers is that their physical productivity was lower. Many of these jobs required physical strength, agility, good eyesight, and other attributes that in many workers would deteriorate with advancing age. Thus, employers were likely either to reduce the daily wage without changing the worker's occupation or to move workers to less demanding but also lower-paid jobs.

The decline in income and wages evident in figures 11.3 and 11.6 could not have been wholly unanticipated by the workers. The demands of industrial jobs were such that most men could foresee the time when they would no longer have the strength, endurance, or agility to maintain the level of productivity consistent with the standard wage. This being the case, some sort of "strategy" had to be devised to meet the challenge of economic insecurity that faces older wage earners.[18]

A novel investigation into the duration of the "trade life" of working men conducted in New Jersey between 1888 and 1890 by that state's Bureau of Statistics of Labor and Industries provides striking evidence that this was so. The investigation was predicated on the assumption that after working at a given occupation for a number of years, the worker would begin to "decline" at his job. To ascertain the effect of occupation on the length of a man's working life, the New Jersey bureau conducted a survey of journeymen asking for their age and occupation, the age they began to work at their pre-


313

sent trade, and (if they had reached it) the age when they began to decline. All together the bureau surveyed nearly thirteen thousand employed men over the age of 20 in six industries. The surveys were tabulated and the results published in three successive volumes of the bureau's Annual Report (New Jersey 1889, 1890, 1891).

In four industries (glassmaking, pottery, hat making, and iron mining) workers were apparently identified by their employers and were approached by bureau agents who administered the questionnaire. For the building trades and printing, workers were identified in a house-to-house canvass conducted during the early hours of the evening in the county of Essex and in the cities of Trenton, Elizabeth, Paterson, and Jersey City (New Jersey 1891:173). Table 11.2 gives the distribution of those sampled by occupation and estimates the survey coverage. Although tabulations were presented in

TABLE 11.2
New Jersey Survey of Selected Occupations, 1889-1891


Occupation


Number Surveyed

1890 U.S. Census Enumeration

Percentage Coverage

Building tradesa

     
 

Carpenters

2,732

21,191

12.9

 

Painters

1,235

9,439

13.1

 

Bricklayers and masons

1,022

6,767

15.1

 

Plumbers

661

3,085

21.4

Hat makers

2,577

6,137

42.0

Miners of iron oreb

1,269

1,380

92.0

Potters

1,122

3,801

29.5

Glassmakers

1,040

4,298

24.2

Printers

462

3,375

13.7

   

Total

12,120

61,075

19.8

SOURCES : New Jersey 1891; 178; U.S. Census 1890, vol. 1, pt. II: 324-332, table 79; U.S. Census 1890, vol. 7, Mineral Industries : 17.

a Stonecutters were also included in the New Jersey investigation (701 were surveyed). However, no data were reported on the age stonecutters began to decline. We assume that for some reason these data were not tabulated. Given the way the reports are presented, an alternative interpretation is that none of the stonecutters had yet begun to decline (New Jersey 1891: 192). Including, rather than excluding, stonecutters would make little difference to the overall results.

b The 1,269 miners "embrace all the workmen engaged in the mining of iron ore in the State, but do not include engineers, blacksmiths, common laborers, or those employed about the mines in handling the ore" (New Jersey 1890: 359). The U.S. Census of Mineral Industries distinguishes between employees of iron mines "above ground" (492) and those "below ground" (1,380). Only the belowground employees are included in the comparison made here. The census figures are higher than the N.J. Bureau of Statistics enumeration. Possibly this is because the census figures include all workers, while the New Jersey survey included only males aged 21 and over; also, the New Jersey figures probably exclude miners engaged in "prospecting" (New Jersey 1890: 360), while the census figures presumably do not exclude them.


314

TABLE 11.3
Proportion of Journeymen Aged 60+ and Percentage of Journeymen "in Decline," Selected Occupations, New Jersey, 1889-1891


Occupation


Percent Aged 60+

Percent Beginning to Decline

Average Age of Decline

Building trades

0.8

9.5

39.8

Hat makers

2.0

14.7

36.6

Miners of iron ore

3.1

7.1

44.6

Potters

0.6

8.6

38.3

Glassmakers

0.9

24.7

39.8

Printers

0.4

21.2

36.6

 

Total

1.4

12.0

38.9

SOURCES : New Jersey, 1889: 114-115, table 3 summary; New Jersey 1890: 380, table 2; New Jersey 1891: 178; 199-200, table 2; 201, table 3.

exhaustive detail, no clear summary statement was provided by the New Jersey officials. Two statistics calculated in the reports, the percentage of workers beginning to decline and the average age reported for the onset of decline, are given in table 11.3.

The relatively low percentage of journeymen who were still working at these skilled jobs at age 60 or over suggests that many workers left these occupations before reaching 60. It is not possible from these data alone to determine the reason older workers left their trade. Among the possible causes are retirement (including retirement due to disability or illness), downward occupational mobility, or death.

The percentage of workers who reported that they had begun to decline at their trade is remarkably high. For glassmakers, it was one quarter of all workers. Those who felt they had already begun to decline were asked to report the age at which they first noticed their difficulties. The average response is given in the table. For the entire sample, it was 38.9 years. This measure, however, will be biased downward as a measure of the typical age of peak productivity because it includes only workers who have already begun to decline. Other things equal, a worker prone to an early age of decline will be more likely to have passed this climacteric at the time of the New Jersey canvass than a worker prone to a late decline. As a result there will have been an oversampling of journeymen who began to decline at young ages and an undersampling of the age of decline of the hardy. Another possible objection to the average age of decline reported in the table is that it is based on the recollection of the worker. Such retrospective dating is notoriously inaccurate.

Several measures that eliminate both the type of downward bias mentioned above and the problems associated with the retrospective question are presented as an alternative in table 11.4. All these measures rely on the


315

TABLE 11.4
Estimating the Age of Peak Productivity, New Jersey Journeymen, Selected Occupations, 1889-1891

 

Percentage in Decline

   

Occupation


By Age 56


By Age 60


By Age 66

Singulate Mean


Half- Life

Carpenters

33.0

51.9

70.8

56.8

59.0

Painters

54.1

67.1

80.0

50.9

53.4

Bricklayers and masons

37.0

49.8

62.5

55.9

59.6

Plumbers

26.7

a

a

a

b

Printers

64.3

a

a

49.6

51.9

Glassmakers

74.2

81.5

88.9

45.9

45.2

Hat makers

49.2

a

a

48.9

b

Miners of iron ore

48.1

61.2

74.4

55.1

55.2

Potters

77.4

a

a

46.7

45.2

 

Unweighted Total

47.5

55.9

64.2

52.7

56.0

NOTE : a indicates that sample size was too small for reliable estimate, b that proportion in decline was less than 50 percent.

notion of a synthetic cohort that experiences at each age demographic events at the same rate that workers of that age reported in the cross-section sample. Thus the only information used is the response (yes or no) to the question, "Have you begun to decline at your trade?" The first three columns of the table report the percentage of workers who had already entered their decline by various ages. Column 4 presents the singulate mean age of decline calculated using the synthetic cohort method of John Hajnal (1953). The last column gives the cohort's "half-life," the age at which one-half of the members of the synthetic cohort have begun to decline. Table 11.4 suggests that the typical age for the onset of decline would be in a man's early 50s.

The measures in table 11.4, however, would be unbiased estimates only if the mortality experience of those who began their decline was the same as for those who had not. In this case, "mortality" refers to any reason to cease work, including retirement and job changes as well as death. However, it is quite likely that workers who had begun to decline at their trade were more likely to leave their job than those who had not. The impact of this effect on the synthetic cohort measures will be to bias them upward. Thus we can conjecture that the "true" age of decline lies somewhere between the lower-bound estimates of table 11.3 and the upper-bound estimates of table 11.4. Since the impact of differential mortality will also bias the figures of table 11.3, the truth probably lies closer to the figures in that table where the two biases work to offset each other. The value of the New Jersey data lies not so much in our ability to use it to precisely measure the age at which


316

industrial productivity peaked for a late-nineteenth-century worker as in the fact that it stands as strong evidence that young workers actually anticipated a decline in their vitality, productivity, and income in late life.

The Number and Causes of Days Worked

We noted at the outset that a major reason for the decline of workers' incomes as they aged was that older men worked and were paid for fewer days each year than their younger counterparts. Figure 11.7 presents the age profile of the number of days worked for the Kansas and Maine surveys, together with the number of months worked in two of the Michigan surveys.[19] Both distributions exhibit a remarkable decline from a peak of over 250 paid days averaged by workers in their 30s to approximately 220 paid days worked by men in their 60s. While the number of months worked by Michigan stone and clay workers and Michigan farm laborers probably reflects seasonal fluctuations due to inclement weather, it is clear that older workers were employed for fewer months than workers in the prime age group.

In several of the surveys the number of days lost is classified by one or more general causes: layoff, illness, and voluntary time off. In figure 11.8 through 11.10, we present some summary statistics on days lost by cause that illustrate the extent to which older workers were compelled by illness or unemployment to work fewer days. Figure 11.8 displays the age profiles for

Fig. 11.7.
Age profile of number of days or months worked: Kansas, Maine, and Michigan.


317

Fig. 11.8.
Age profile of days lost from work, by cause: Kansas and Maine.

days lost in the Maine and Kansas surveys due to illness, lack of work, or vacation. Time lost from all three causes rises with age for both surveys, with the increases in layoff and illness among older workers being particularly pronounced. Figure 11.9 presents the days lost to illness or lack of work by employees of hack and bus lines in Michigan and owner-operators of hacks and drays. While both surveys show a pronounced upward trend with age, it is interesting to note that the self-employed lost more time to illness and lack of work at all ages than did employees. It appears that at least in this industry, self-employment did not provide protection against the problem of lost time. Finally, we note that the effect of illness appears to be as significant among farmworkers as it was for the urban labor force. Figure 11.10 presents the proportion of Michigan farmworkers reporting time lost due to illness according to age.

That illness rises with age is not surprising and reinforces the conclusions we drew from the New Jersey data on physical decline. That employers should single out older workers when layoffs were required is somewhat more surprising given modern labor market institutions that tend to protect older workers with seniority. However, if paternalism or nascent internal labor market institutions tended to prevent wage rates from falling as productivity declined, employers would have had an economic incentive to practice age discrimination when selecting workers for reduced days. It is also possible that employers tended to favor younger men who had young


318

Fig. 11.9.
Age profile of days lost from work due to illness or lack of work,
 hack and bus line employees and self-employed owners of hacks
 and drays, Michigan, 1896.

Fig. 11.10.
Proportion of workers reporting illness, by age, Michigan farm
 laborers, 1894.


319

Fig. 11.11.
Age profile of days taken from work for vacation, California, 1892.

children to support than older men whose children were grown and might even be in a position to support them.

The fact that vacation time increases with age can be interpreted in two ways. Perhaps some workers reported time lost as voluntary when it was induced by fatigue or illness. It is also possible that older workers were able to "afford" more leisure time because of their success in building a stock of assets when they were younger. If so, we can think of vacation time as a form of partial or phased retirement. We note in this regard that the number of days taken as vacation time by older workers is greater than that taken by younger workers when one looks only at the distribution of those reporting some vacation time. Figure 11.11 presents this comparison for the California workers.

Conclusion

The analysis behind the findings reported in this chapter is descriptive and the results still somewhat provisional. Nevertheless, we find the profiles of wages, earnings, and time lost by age drawn from these rather diverse samples highly suggestive and intriguing. For all of the surveys we examined, both income and annual earnings of men aged 50 or older were distinctly less than those of men aged 30 to 45. We believe that the lower income reflected an industrial wage system that was based on physical productivity, which declined as the worker moved past middle age. The decline of in-


320

come of older workers, together with the discovery that the incidence of lost time rose dramatically for workers above the age of 45 or 50, reflected this decline in productivity. That time lost and incidence of illness increased with age is hardly surprising. However, the higher number of "days lost" suggests that older workers who did not have either a family-based form of economic security or assets accumulated over their lifetime were at substantial risk in the labor markets of the late nineteenth century. Because of this, the problem of economic security among older workers at the turn of the century was a major concern to working-class Americans.

A key question for economic historians in all this is whether the age profiles we examined in this chapter are reflective of a situation in which workers were able to anticipate their declining economic position and plan for retirement in old age through life cycle saving or whether this was a world in which older workers were caught in a vicious economic squeeze. The answer to that question is not apparent from the data presented above. However, there is considerable evidence that for a significant fraction of families in these surveys, a substantial portion of income was being saved during the middle of the life cycle, that assets were being accumulated by a majority of workers, and that late-life dis-saving was common. For those who succeeded in saving enough over previous years, retirement or substantially reduced work effort in late life became an option whether or not their health deteriorated. Of course, retired men were not in the samples of working families used as the basis for our analysis in this chapter. The estimates of labor force participation in 1900 and 1910 leave little doubt, however, that a sizable fraction of men did retire.

Appendix: Estimating the Age Profile of Variables in the Labor Surveys

The age profile curves in the figures presented in this chapter are smoothed polynomials derived from the raw data. To illustrate how these curves are generated, we present two examples of this technique as it was applied to determine the smoothed curves on age distribution of workers in Kansas (fig. 11.2) and the age profile of wages in Kansas (fig. 11.5). Figure 11.A1 presents the age distribution for the Kansas survey. In addition to the fitted line, we present the actual values for each age, which are then connected by a dashed line. Figure 11.A2 presents the raw data and a smoothed polynomial for daily wage rates in the Kansas survey. Each dot in the figure represents one (or more) worker. The smooth line is a seventh-degree polynomial fit through those points using ordinary least squares regression techniques. Figure 11.A3 plots the same smooth curve as a dashed line and for comparison also plots a jagged line connecting the mean wage rate for each age. The standard error about each respective mean is also represented by


321

Fig. 11.A1.
Age distribution of respondents, Kansas, 
1884-1887: Fitted line and actual values.

Fig. 11.A2.
Age profile of daily wage rates, Kansas, 
1884-1887: Raw data and smoothed polynomial.


322

Fig. 11.A3.
Age profile of daily wage rates, Kansas, 
1884-1887: Standard error of the means.

the vertical lines. Similar procedures were followed in the estimation of age profiles for earnings and days lost.

References

Achenbaum, W. Andrew. 1978. Old age in the new land: The American experience since 1790 . Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Bancroft, Gertrude. 1958. The American labor force: Its growth and changing composition . New York: Social Science Research Council.

Bell, Spurgeon. 1940. Productivity, wages, and national income . Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution.


325

California Bureau of Labor Statistics. 1892. Fifth biennial report, 1892 . Sacramento.

Carter, Susan B. 1988. "The changing importance of lifetime jobs, 1892-1978." Industrial Relations 27 (Fall): 287-300.

Carter, Susan B., and Peter Philips. 1990. "Technology, work organization and the gender gap in manufacturing wages, 1830-1980." In New developments in the labor market: Toward a new institutional paradigm , ed. Katherine G. Abraham and Robert B. McKersie, 213-238. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Carter, Susan B., Roger L. Ransom, and Richard Sutch. 1991. "The Historical Labor Statistics Project at the University of California." Historical Methods 24(Spring): 52-65.

Carter, Susan B., and Elizabeth Savoca. 1990. "Labor mobility and lengthy jobs in nineteenth-century America." Journal of Economic History 50 (March): 1-16.

———. 1991. "Gender differences in learning and earning in nineteenth-century America: The role of expected job and career attachment." Explorations in Economic History 28 (July): 323-343.

———. 1992. "The teaching procession? Another look at teacher tenure, 1845-1925." Explorations in Economic History 29 (October): 401-416.

Darby, Michael R. 1979. The effects of social security on income and the capital stock . Washington, D.C.: American Enterprise Institute.

Duggan, James E. 1984. "The labor force participation of older workers." Industrial and Labor Relations Review 37 (April): 415-430.

Eichengreen, Barry. 1984. "Experience and the male-female earnings gap in the 1890s." Journal of Economic History 44 (September): 822-834.

———. 1987. "The impact of late nineteenth-century unions on labor earnings and hours: Iowa in 1894." Industrial and Labor Relations Review 40 (July): 501-515.

Eichengreen, Barry, and Henry Gemery. 1986. "The earnings of skilled and unskilled immigrants at the end of the 19th century." Journal of Economic History 44(June): 441-454.

Goldin, Claudia. 1990. Understanding the gender gap: An economic history of American women . Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Hajnal, John. 1953. "Age at marriage and proportions marrying." Population Studies 7(November): 111-136.

Hannon, Joan Underhill. 1978. "The immigrant worker in the promised land: Human capital and ethnic discrimination in the Michigan labor market, 1889-1890." Ph.D. dissertation, Department of Economics, University of Wisconsin.

———. 1982a . "Ethnic discrimination in a 19th-century mining district: Michigan copper mines, 1888." Explorations in Economic History 19 (January): 28-50.

———. 1982b . "City size and ethnic discrimination: Michigan agricultural implements and iron working industries, 1890." Journal of Economic History 42 (December): 825-846.

Hansen, Alvin H. 1922. "Industrial classes in the United States in 1920." Journal of the American Statistical Association 18 (December): 501-508.

Iowa Bureau of Labor Statistics. 1885. First biennial report, 1884-5 . Des Moines: Geo. E. Roberts.

Kansas Bureau of Labor and Industrial Statistics. 1886. First annual report, January 1, 1886 . Topeka: T. D. Thatcher, State Printer.

———. 1887. Second annual report, January 1, 1887 . Topeka: T. D. Thatcher, State Printer.


326

———. 1888. Third annual report, January 1, 1888 . Topeka: Clifford C. Baker, State Printer.

Kotlikoff, Laurence J., and Lawrence H. Summers. 1981. "The role of intergenerational transfers in aggregate capital accumulation." Journal of Political Economy 89 (August): 706-732.

Lebergott, Stanley. 1964. Manpower in economic growth: The American record since 1800 . New York: McGraw-Hill.

Maine Bureau of Industrial and Labor Statistics. 1888. First annual report, 1887 . Augusta: Burleigh and Flynt, Printers to the State.

———. 1892. Fifth annual report, 1891 . Augusta: Burleigh and Flynt, Printers to the State.

Michigan Bureau of Labor and Industrial Statistics. 1895. Twelfth annual report of the Bureau of Labor, year ending February 1, 1895 . Lansing: Robert Smith and Co., State Printers and Binders.

———. 1889. Seventh annual report . Lansing: State Printer.

Modigliani, Franco. 1986. "Life cycle, individual thrift, and the wealth of nations." American Economic Review 76 (June): 297-313.

Moen, Jon. 1987. "The labor of older men: A comment." Journal of Economic History 47(September): 761-767.

Mushkin, S.J., and Alan Berman. 1947. "Factors influencing trends in employment of the aged." Social Security Bulletin 10 (August): 18-23.

New Jersey Bureau of Statistics of Labor and Industries. 1889. Twelfth annual report of the Bureau of Statistics of Labor and Industries of New Jersey for the year ending October 31, 1889 . Trenton: F. F. Patterson.

———. 1890. Thirteenth annual report of the Bureau of Statistics of Labor and Industries of New Jersey, for the year ending October 31, 1890 . Trenton: Electric Printing Company.

———. 1891. Fourteenth annual report of the Bureau of Statistics of Labor and Industries of New Jersey for the year ending October 31st, 1891 . Trenton: John L. Murphy.

Ransom, Roger L. 1990. "A proposal for a historical statistics archive." Cliometrics Newsletter (April): n.p.

Ransom, Roger L., and Richard Sutch. 1986a . "The labor of older Americans: Retirement of men on and off the job, 1870-1937." Journal of Economic History 46(March): 1-30.

———. 1986b . "Unequalled thrift: An inquiry into the saving behavior of Americans at the turn of the century." Paper presented to the American Economic Association, New Orleans, December.

———. 1987. "Tontine insurance and the Armstrong investigation: A case of stifled innovation, 1868-1905." Journal of Economic History 47(June): 379-390.

———. 1988. "The decline of retirement in the years before social security: U.S. retirement patterns, 1870-1940." In Issues in contemporary retirement , ed. Edward Lazear and Rita Ricardo-Campbell, 3-37. Stanford: Hoover Institution Press.

———. 1989a . "The trend in the rate of labor force participation of older men, 1870-1930: A reply to Moen." Journal of Economic History 49(March): 170-183.

———. 1989b . "Two strategies for a more secure old age: Life cycle saving by late nineteenth-century American workers." Working Papers on the History of Saving, no. 6, Institute of Business and Research, University of California, Berkeley.


327

Ransom, Roger L., Richard Sutch, and Samuel Williamson. 1991. "Retirement: Past and present." In Retirement and public policy: Proceedings of the second conference of the National Academy of Social Insurance , ed. Alicia H. Munnell, 23-57. Dubuque: Kendall Hunt.

U.S. Census Office. 1890. Eleventh census . Vol. 7. Mineral industries . Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office.

Williamson, Jeffrey G. 1967. "Consumer behavior in the nineteenth century: Carroll D. Wright's Massachusetts workers in 1875." Explorations in Entrepreneurial History , 2d series, 4(Winter): 98-135.

Wright, Carroll D. 1902. Index of all reports issued by Bureaus of Labor Statistics in the United States prior to March 1, 1902 . U.S. Bureau of Labor. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office.


328

previous part
Eleven The Impact of Aging on the Employment of Men in American Working-Class Communities at the End of the Nineteenth Century
next chapter