The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

Remembering the Good Job Market Of the 70s

If you’re under 68 or so, and weren’t involved in regional boom or something like the internet bubble, you probably have never experienced a good job market. At age 56, I remember the 70s, and I even remember the job market after a sense: I was an only child and around my parents adult friends a lot. I had no uncles or Aunts by blood where I lived, but half a dozen Uncles and Aunts by friendship. And I do remember that just getting a job wasn’t a problem, at least not till the late 70s and the early 80s recession.

But better the words be from someone who was actually there. I think this is important, so I’ve elevated a comment from Marku52:

My wife points this out to me often “Back then (mid 70’s) I had tons of jobs. I’d lose one one day and have another one in a couple of days. It wasn’t a problem. And what a breadth of experience. She was a waitress (terrible at it, got fired), a photographers assistant, a computer data input person for an auto parts chain that was digitizing (She told the other workers “you know, they are only doing this so they can get rid of you”), and finally a paginator at a news paper using a brand new digital pagination system. All kinds of opportunities out there.

And for me, I got hired at a cabinet shop with nothing but some very basic woodworking skills, eventually became shop foreman, left to do electronic tech work at a sound company, boss even paid for another tech to come in once a week and train me. I went back to school and got my EE degree. (for $85 per quarter!)

Sure was a different time, and a way way better one.

This is what was lost because of neoliberalism and the decision to handle the oil shocks by crushing employment to crush wages. It’s a world hardly anyone even remembers any more.

But it did happen, and a world like it, but good for the environment and fair to women and minorities, is possible.



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  1. NukeIsrael

    It’s not just that there were tons of jobs, it’s that you could get hired to do things that now require a specialized degree. That photography job would now require a masters degree and an internship. I would love to work as a librarian but they won’t hire me without a library science degree. Fucking ridiculous.

  2. Jan Wiklund

    I use to say that we have never been so free as in the 70s. If we didn’t like our job we just quit and got a new one. Or we saved somewhat, and since housing was extremely cheap we could live long on our savings and do what we pleased. As we said: If everything fucks up completely, we can always find a job at the post Office. (I am 74, by the way)

    So the libertarians are nuts. We are much more circumscribed today than in the presumedly bureaucrat-ridden Keynesian society.

  3. Revelo

    I grew up in the American south in the 1960’s and was in my teens in the 1970’s. Colored folk, as they were called then (NAACP = National Association for Advancement of Colored People) had a different reality of job abundance. True, there were plentiful jobs for colored people, but only unskilled jobs which paid very poorly, especially because there were special deductions from the legal minimum wage level, and if you didn’t agree to those deductions, you didn’t get the job. And colored people could only rent in certain areas, meaning higher rents than one might expect given the housing quality. Low wages plus high rent meant 10 people per roach infested room was common. I came from the landlord class, so I know what I’m talking about. Preaching and funeral services were the most common well paid jobs for colored people. Whites couldn’t do the preaching and didn’t want to deal with embalming dead black bodies. Blacks were highly competitive in sports, music, acting, pimping, drug dealing, etc but almost no one in these fast money jobs retained any of their earnings, so effectively low wage in the long run.

    Lots of people fault poor whites for enabling the Republican Southern strategy, but those poor whites had their backs against the wall. They knew the minute the artifical race barriers came down, there would be crowds of hungry blacks chasing every one of those abundant waitress, photography assistant, data inout, woodworker, etc jobs you talk about, plus more blacks eager to move out of the ghetto as soon as they got their hands on a decent pay check and thus drive up rents for whites, and more blacks pushing into the spacious classrooms of the white schools versus the jam packed classrooms of the black schools, hordes of blacks wanting to use the white only tennis courts and swimming pool and golf course in the public park, etc.

    In theory, it is possible to have universal abundance by the miracles of technological innovation, mechanization, steady accumulation of physical capital by society, etc. In practice, it seems like western capitalist societies need an underclass of at least 50% to provide a firm foundation for abundance in the upper tiers (1 slave per free person). Blacks comprised about 30% of that 50% in the old south, the other 20% were the poor whites. Global south currently provides that underclass foundation for the golden billion of the developed world, except the ratio is more like 3 slaves per free person. Meaning we’re going to need a complete rethinking of economic organization of we want the entire world to enjoy the job abundance and other prosperity enjoyed by class whites in the USA in the 1970’s. More likely, middle class USA whites are going to experience another big decline as that foundation underneath of 3 slaves of the global south is removed in decades to come.

  4. elkern

    As a 69-yr-old USAmerican, I strongly agree. In 1973, my Dad lost his advertising job but found a new white-collar job within a year, paying enough to support family in nice suburban house with a pool. I dropped in and out of college several times, was always able to find work when I bothered to try, and was always able to live cheaply whether employed or not. Rent – in houses shared with 4-6 friends – was $65-$100/month. A six-pack of PBR Bock cost $1.65!

    Tuition at University of CA was $125/quarter when I started in 1976; by the time I graduated in 1985, it was $495; it’s now over $5,000/quarter. The UC system was an early target for the GOP cabal who hired Ronald Reagan as salesman for their plan to end the New Deal. Needless to say, their plan succeeded, and now we’re all paying the price.

    OTOH, my [non-launched] son has been bouncing between jobs for the last several years, and has never had trouble finding new ones. Since Covid, his hourly wages have jumped to $15-20/hr (almost double what he was making in the 201X’s?), but most jobs are max 30 hrs/wk, so he’s getting $4-500/wk after taxes, which sounds like a lot to us old farts, but rent would eat up over half of that, so he’s still living here with me.

    Side note: more and more people are living [permanently?] in hotels & motels these days…

  5. Willy

    I sometimes tell the tale of having worked part-time in a grocery store to pay for all of my university, which it did. One of my peers realized he wasn’t college material and turned grocery store pro. Within a year he bought a brand new 16’ boat. Within two he’d bought a house. I left that business after completing school and lost track of that peer, back in 1985.

    Out of curiosity, I’d recently looked him up. Thanks to the magic of the internet I found that he was still living in that same house he’d bought back then. That same boat was parked in his front yard, next to the same Ford Bronco he’d owned, although house, boat, and Bronco were now looking pretty shabby in that Google pic. It was obvious that at his young age of 20, 1985 had been the peak of his life.

    I then found out that he was a registered Republican. He’d been raised Catholic, so maybe that was part of it. But then, he hadn’t been all that bright. It’s easy to imagine wealthy Powers That Be getting away with feeding him a bunch of prosperity gospel personal responsibility crap, to divert attentions from the fact that they were stealing up all the fertile ground away from hardworking guys like him.

  6. Seriously. I’m about your age and like so many of us can rattle off a long list of jobs:

    Mowing lawns in neighborhood
    Groundskeeper at historical tourist site
    College phone book ad salesman (Hired with no experience)
    Flea Market table worker (Hired with no experience)
    Warehouse forklift driver (Hired with no experience)
    Limousine driver (Hired with no experience)
    Carpenter’s helper (Hired with no professional experience)
    Framing carpenter
    Teacher’s Aide at School for emotionally disturbed kids (hired with no experience and no appropriate degree)
    Phone Customer Service Rep (Hired with no experience)
    Phone Sales Rep
    Customer Service Rep answering letters
    Wine Shop Clerk (Hired with no experience and no knowledge of wine)
    Cellphone Inventory Manager (Hired with no experience or knowledge of cellphones)
    English Teacher in Czech Republic (Hired with no training or experience)
    Salad Maker
    Convenience Store Clerk
    Dramaturg in Theater Company

    At this point I was almost 40 and making enough money in the arts supported by real estate and investment that I never worked another full-time job but I still took occasional part-time jobs at construction, painting, and working in a coffee bar etc.

    I was offered every single one of those jobs without a resume. (Two of the jobs required a resume on file, but I was allowed to create the resume after I was hired.)

  7. StewartM

    I entered the part-time job market in the post-mid 70s (summer jobs; I was in college), and I recall getting that ‘first job’ wasn’t that easy. Before then, I did minimum work for minimum pay at my dad’s business during weekends and summers.

    But here’s what I also noted: before Reagan, if I worked like a dog (say, two part-time jobs) I could both pay rent and utilities on my single-room boarding house apartment and be able to save up a modest amount (I was able to fix a decayed tooth with a crown out of my own pocket, $500 I recall). The minimum wage was hiked every year due to inflation increases, and on top of that small businesses sometimes offered incentives like automatic pay increases with tenure to keep employees.

    Then came ‘Morning in America’, and all that ended. Moreover, rents shot up by a factor of 2.5 (the apartment I lived in cost $80 a month (utilities and phone would add maybe $15 more), and then you couldn’t find anything under $200 -250—the first apartment I found at $220, I think, I had to share with a rat (the four-legged kind, not the obnoxious two-legged kind). So you had to find a roomie to make ends meet, and even then not as well. I was continuing my education, on student loans (luckily while school tuitions had gone up, they weren’t in the stratosphere as today). But my entire loan went to both tuition and helping to pay rent, while I worked part-time to boot.

    The last two-three years I did get a place by myself, a basement apartment in a ‘fixer-upper’ VA loan house that a future lifetime friend bought, and the rent was cheaper (she used it to pay the cheap mortgage) and she and her family appreciated the fact that I always paid the rent, didn’t destroy the place, and wasn’t any trouble. After I got the ‘job’ at my company, I would go down and see her and take her out to eat or look at books–her house was wall-to-wall books, she was qualified to teach like 7-8 subjects in K-12 education, she did research at the Smithsonian, she had been wiretapped by the FBI in the 1960s (she joked “you could hear them breathing over the phone line when you stopped talking”), and so much more. She could discuss anything, and had lived a fascinating life.

    When I got to my company, I saw the typical Reagan voter who had voted that bastard in. Most of them had mortgages about equal to the $80 I had paid for that small apartment pre-Reagan. They applauded Reagan’s kicking the poors. They had good jobs with benefits, including retirement benefits so good that few worked past 60, let alone 65. Nearly all of them are now dead; they won the ‘death bet’, but those who followed them maybe (?) realize that kicking the poors was only the first step, and their turn too to be kicked and squeezed would follow.

  8. Purple Library Guy

    I came along just too late for this, but my parents were able to, by living together in fairly cruddy basement suites and scrimping every dime, do one year working at low end jobs, the other year going to university while living off their savings from the first year. They agreed strongly that nowadays there is no way you could do that. Even in the 80s I couldn’t have done that, although things were better than they are now.

    When I was younger it was still possible for one upper middle class full time job to support a family and buy a house. In the 80s, when women were still in the process of entering the work force, there was a term that live alongside “yuppie” for a while: Dink. It stood for “double income no kids” and the point was that people in that situation had it made, because one income could just about support you, so the second income was gravy. Now two people with middle-income jobs can afford to rent a two-bedroom apartment or something. The situation is ridiculous.

    And the deterioration in people’s living standards and the increase in the number of work hours required to survive half decently tracks with the erosion of the welfare state and the decline of unions. The amount of propaganda required to keep people believing that right wing ideas are the answer is staggering. It helps that the shift is gradual, and as with climate change we see a lot of people forgetting or unaware or not really believing in their gut that things were ever different.

  9. anon

    I’m a Millennial and I sometimes meet older people with insane stories like starting at a company as a secretary and retiring as a director or even CEO. Some of them don’t even have advanced degrees that are required to get a job now. They also had a pension system that is virtually unheard of today. I was told by a colleague that about a decade ago, an older woman at our organization retired with a pension that practically made her a millionaire. I know another woman who started as a secretary 30 years ago and will retire with a pension that will guarantee her $55,000 a year. The Baby Boomers who played their cards right really made out like bandits.

  10. marku52

    One side note: Yeah it was pretty good, but you did have to be straight and white. Otherwise, not so much.
    But as others have pointed out, employers were much more willing to train. My boss brought in another tech to train me above my rudimentary troubleshooting skills “That part burned up. I should replace that….”
    More wife stories: Worked at a print shop, owner trained her up to run the AB Dick360 machine. Worked at an engraver, trained up to run a pantograph. Cut her finger on a moon rock. It was for a plaque at JPL, just up the hill “The vial wasn’t sealed very well….”

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