(August 2000) The United States now has the most highly educated work force in its history, thanks to recent gains by women and African Americans. During the next decade, for the first time, the majority of new workers are expected to be women, and 41 percent are expected to be members of racial and ethnic minorities.

Over a quarter of young adults currently have at least a bachelor's degree, compared with barely one-tenth four decades ago, when today's retirees were in their 20s. Since 1975, the increase has been due to improving rates of college graduation for women and African Americans of both sexes. The percentages of young white and Hispanic men with college degrees are about the same as a quarter century ago.

"We're seeing a change in the demography of the work force as well as the ordinary turnover of generations in the next decade," according to Kelvin M. Pollard and John G. Haaga, co-authors of the 2000 United States Population Data Sheet. The data sheet highlights trends in education, occupation, and age at retirement, as well as state-level rankings on workforce characteristics like health insurance and labor union membership. In addition, the data sheet provides a state-by-state rundown on population, age structure, and other demographic variables.

The increase in the educational qualifications of young women has helped chip away at male dominance of the better paid occupations and reduce the gap between median wages of men and women. Since 1985, the share of working women who are managers, professionals, or administrators has increased from 24 percent to 32 percent. In fact, a higher proportion of working women than of working men are classified as professionals, but most professional women are teachers or nurses, which are among the lower paid occupations in the professional category.

"The ingenuity of businesses will be tested again and again as labor force developments over the next ten years represent new challenges as well as the continuation of existing ones," says Richard F. Hokenson, Director of Demographic Research at Credit Suisse First Boston and a member of PRB's Board of Trustees. "We are on the eve of the largest retirement boom in history, and although the baby boom generation will not officially reach retirement age until the second decade of this new century, early signs of this unprecedented alteration in the demographic landscape will occur with increasing frequency." The number of persons leaving the labor force is projected to increase from 19 million between 1988 and 1998 to more than 25.1 million between 1998 and 2008. Even with an increase in the number of new entrants, the labor force is projected to increase by only 12 percent between 1998 and 2008, slightly less than the 13 percent increase posted over the previous 10-year period (1988 to 1998).

Both major-party presidential candidates vow to "leave no child behind," but one of every 11 older teenagers (16-to-19-year-olds) is idle — neither working, nor in school, nor in the armed services. They may not be ready to participate productively in either the New Economy or the Old Economy in the next decade.

Highlights from the data sheet:

  • By 2015, the working age population (ages 16 to 64) is expected to grow 14 percent. The pool of potential workers is projected to increase by at least 20 percent in 11 states.
  • Those persons entering the work force in the next decade will include more women (50 percent) and more members of minority groups (41 percent) than the current work force.
  • Just over half (54 percent) of workers have health insurance provided by their employer or union. The percentage ranges from 62 percent in Hawaii to 43 percent in North Dakota.
  • Membership in unions ranges from 25 percent in New York to 3 percent in North Carolina. It is 14 percent nationwide.
  • Twenty-eight percent of Americans ages 25 to 54 are college graduates. The share ranges from 44 percent in the District of Columbia to 18 percent in Arkansas.
  • In five states (led by California at 31 percent), at least 20 percent of the working-age population was born outside the United States. In 20 other states, however, less than 5 percent of working-age persons were foreign-born.