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Where US Manufacturing Jobs Really Went

In the decade between 1999 and 2009, the number of jobs in manufacturing fell from 17 million to 12 million, giving rise to the idea that the US economy suddenly stopped working – at least for blue-collar males – at the turn of the century. But it is wrong to suggest that previously all was well in US manufacturing.

BERKELEY – In the two decades from 1979 to 1999, the number of manufacturing jobs in the United States drifted downward, from 19 million to 17 million. But over the next decade, between 1999 and 2009, the number plummeted to 12 million. That more dramatic decline has given rise to the idea that the US economy suddenly stopped working – at least for blue-collar males – at the turn of the century.

But it is wrong to suggest that all was well in manufacturing before 1999. Manufacturing jobs were being destroyed in those earlier decades, too. But the lost jobs in one region and sector were generally being replaced – in absolute terms, if not as a share of the labor force – by new jobs in another region or sector.

Consider the career of my grandfather, William Walcott Lord, who was born in New England early in the twentieth century. In 1933, his Lord Brothers Shoe Company in Brockton, Massachusetts, was facing imminent bankruptcy. So he relocated his operations to South Paris, Maine, where wages were lower.

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