Is a bigger nation richer?
As the US population clock approaches 300 million, experts examine a possible link between growth and prosperity.
In a few weeks, the US population clock will tick past 300 million. It's a symbolic moment, and over the next five Tuesdays, the Monitor will explore the ways, both profound and mundane, that this number affects the economy, the environment, how we live, and what we hope to achieve. It reveals a present far different from the US at 200 million – and portends a future of equal or even greater change.Skip to next paragraph
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In the past 39 years, the United States has added 100 million people – the biggest population spurt in its history. At the same time, America has sustained greater economic growth than any civilization before it.
Is there a link?
While it's hard to prove that population growth spurs economic growth, experts say, the two often go hand in hand. That helps to explain why, by virtually any socioeconomic standard, most American workers are better off today than they were in 1967, the year the population reached 200 million.
The economy that boosted their earnings has also provided many more jobs, many of them in industries that didn't exist four decades ago.
So, the population rise has forced – or at least been accompanied by – dramatic change in the workplace.
Today's workers are less likely to build automobiles and more likely to stock shelves at Wal-Mart or spend their days in a cubicle peering at a computer screen. A far smaller share of workers belong to a union, and those who do often hold government jobs. The fastest-growing job types are computer design and support, systems analysis, desktop publishing, and healthcare.
The most significant change of all: the rise of women in the workforce.
When Billie Williamson joined the Ernst & Young accounting firm in Dallas 32 years ago, she was one of just four women in an office of 100 employees. There were no female partners or senior managers. Today, 40 percent of the firm's employees and 24 percent of its newest partners are women, and the retention rate for women is nearly equal to that of men.
The change goes beyond numbers.
"When I started," Ms. Williamson remembers, "we had no maternity policy, so when my daughter was born my boss told me I could take four weeks of vacation."
Today, employees get 12 weeks paid maternity leave and the option to start back on a flexible, reduced work schedule if they like. The company also has formalized its flexible work arrangements for men as well as women to take into consideration children, elderly relatives who may need care, and other family needs.
"We are trying to address all of the issues people may encounter in their personal lives in a productive way that allows them to stay with Ernst & Young and have a great career," says Williamson, who runs the company's flexibility and gender equity strategy for its offices throughout the Americas when she's not attending to clients as a partner in the firm.
Her trajectory mirrors the job gains of women, generally. Back in 1967, 41 percent worked outside the home. Today, it's 59 percent, a trend that's brought results beyond the paycheck.
"There can be little doubt that, on balance, a woman's expectation to earn a wage has been liberating," write the authors of "America by the Numbers," a 2001 look at the nation's demographic and social trends. At the same time, they observe, "the grand social transformation that many feminists hoped would follow ... remains far from complete."
More women may be wearing power suits, but advances have been slow. Just 16.4 percent of Fortune 500 companies have corporate officer positions held by women and only 11 Fortune 500 CEOs are women, according to Catalyst, a research and advocacy organization in New York. In some law school classes now, most of the students are women. But so far just 17 percent of law firm partners are female.