Skip to: Content
Skip to: Site Navigation
Skip to: Search

Energy Voices: Insights on the future of fuel and power

Recession and jobs: Is energy the driver?

Economic and job growth are closely tied to energy consumption. While jobs can grow faster than energy use when efficiency kicks in, the cost may be lower wages. 

(Page 2 of 3)

If we look at recent world energy consumption, we see rapid growth in energy consumption. This pattern is quite different from the US pattern we saw in Figure 2, which was much flatter. (Click on Figure 3.)

Skip to next paragraph

Gail Tverberg, an actuary with a background in math, analyzes energy and financial matters from a perspective that the world has limited resources. For more of Gail's posts, click here.

Recent posts

Figure 4 (click above) shows that there has been a striking difference in how energy consumption has grown in various parts of the world.

Energy consumption has been quite flat in the grouping of industrialized countries I show first (European Union-27, USA, and Japan). The Former Soviet Union (FSU) collapsed in 1991, and the consumption for those countries has never recovered. Energy consumption for the “Rest of the World” has been increasing amazingly rapidly since 2002. The rest of the world includes China, India, Bangladesh, and many small countries, plus oil exporters, such as Saudi Arabia and Mexico. Although I don’t break it out separately on Figure 4, the increase in energy consumption since 2002 has been especially marked in Asia.

The “bend” in the line for “Rest of the World” energy consumption took place immediately after China joined the World Trade Organization in December 2001. If we look at China’s fuel consumption by itself, we see that its huge rise in energy consumption (Figure 5, below) came mostly from increased coal consumption starting at that time. Oil consumption also increased. Nuclear and renewables are too small to be visible on the chart. (Click on Figure 5.)

Other countries, especially Asian countries like India, also ramped up their energy consumption at a similar time. India also uses coal as its primary fuel, with 53% of its energy consumption in 2011 coming from coal (based on BP 2012 data).

While I don’t have employment data for Figure 4 groupings, I do have economic growth data (Real GDP is Gross Domestic Product, adjusted to remove effects of inflation), shown in Figure 6, above.

Figure 6 indicates that the economy of the “Rest of World” has been growing much faster than the EU, USA, and Japan grouping since 2001. In fact the Rest of the World’s growth has been much faster for nearly the entire period shown on the graph. Based on the steeper rise in energy consumption of the “Rest of World,” in Figure 4 compared to the old industrialized countries grouping, this might be the predicted result.

One point that many people miss is that the Great Recession of 2007-2009 was to a significant extent a phenomenon of the older industrialized countries. EU, USA, and Japan all were hit very hard, while the “Rest of the World” almost sailed along. This can be seen in the energy consumption data on Figure 4, and the economic growth data on Figure 6.  The Rest of the World slowed down a bit, but even during that period, its growth rate exceeded the best growth rate of the EU, USA, and Japan grouping during the 1984-2011 period (based on Figure 6).

Is it Possible to Change the Relationship between Energy Consumption and Number Employed?

The answer is pretty clearly, yes, but lower wages may be part of the mix.

Let’s look at how the United States changed its energy consumption, per number of people employed, over time. If we go back to the 1949 to 1972 time period, we also see a close relationship ( R2  = 99%) between US energy consumption and employment, but it is a different close relationship than since 1982, (shown in Figure 2, near the top of this post). Click on Figure 7.

During the 1949 to 1972 period, energy consumption was consistently rising faster than the number of people employed. Oil was cheap, as were other energy sources, so not too much thought was given to how efficiently it was used. Also, as we will see in Figure 9, wages for workers were rising much more quickly (in inflation-adjusted terms) than they have been in more recent times.

About 1972, we discovered we had a big problem. (Click on Figure 8.)

Oil had been our largest source of energy, and our own domestic production was dropping quite rapidly. By 1973, the Arabs had discovered our vulnerability, and the 1973 Oil Embargo began, leading to a sharp rise in gasoline prices. The US Federal Government regulated oil prices from 1973 to 1981. At the same time, a major effort was made to switch oil use to another fuel whenever possible. Electricity generation was switched to include more coal and nuclear (based on EIA data), and to remove production using oil. There was great demand for more fuel-efficient cars, leading to the import of cars from Japan (a country that had been making smaller cars for years), and the down-sizing of US cars. (See Figure 9.)

As a result, the period 1972-1982 was a time when energy consumption was relatively flat, but employment rose. A big part of this rise reflected the addition of women who had not previously worked outside of the home to the work force. With the higher price of oil, salaries did not go as far, so having another family member working was helpful. According to Toosi, the percentage of women who were part of the workforce rose from 43.3%  in 1970 to 51.1% 1980. Wages of women were lower than those of men (click on Figure 10), helping to hold down the average wage.

Also, the wages of lower-paid men stopped rising in real (inflation-adjusted) terms. (The wages shown are Figure 5 are median wages–50% of wage-earners earn more than that amount and 50% year earn less.) Wages of high-paid workers, such as business executives and physicians (not shown on the chart), were still rising.

  • Weekly review of global news and ideas
  • Balanced, insightful and trustworthy
  • Subscribe in print or digital

Special Offer


Editors' picks

Doing Good


What happens when ordinary people decide to pay it forward? Extraordinary change...

Endeavor Global, cofounded by Linda Rottenberg (here at the nonprofit’s headquarters in New York), helps entrepreneurs in emerging markets.

Linda Rottenberg helps people pursue dreams – and create thousands of jobs

She's chief executive of Endeavor Global, a nonprofit group that gives a leg up to budding entrepreneurs.

Become a fan! Follow us! Google+ YouTube See our feeds!