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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. 

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It is hard to tell what the relative impacts were of the many changes that took place in the 1972 to 1982 time period. Clearly, lower average wages (with more women in the work force) and flatter wages were a big part of the change. But there were other changes as  well, including more imported manufactured goods, changes to fuels other than oil, and more efficient use of oil, all contributing to the differences we see between Figure 2 and Figure 7. The US became a net importer during this period as well, and thus began running up external debt (based on US Bureau of Economic Analysis data).

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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.

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Comparing energy-employment patterns in Figure 2 and Figure 7 may be confusing for some. I show the change in the relationship in another way in Figure 11. Here I show (energy consumption/number of people employed). It shows that energy consumption per employed person was rising prior to 1972, came down for a variety of reasons in the 1972-1982 period, and is now pretty close to flat (decreasing slightly).

On a positive note, one factor that has helped keep quality of life up is increased efficiency in using energy. Homes are better insulated now. Home heating and cooling units are more efficient. Businesses have worked hard to keep energy use down, because energy is a major factor in their cost structure. For example, we read about airlines retiring their less fuel-efficient jets. Thus, even though energy consumption divided by number of workers is flat or trending slightly downward, our standard of living has risen considerably since 1970 or 1980.

Another thing that has helped improve living standards is the amount of manufactured goods we are now importing from China and other countries around the world, especially Asian countries. The amount of debt we need to keep amassing to buy all of the goods we buy abroad is a problem, however, because we are not earning enough to pay the full amount of these goods. If we could count on economic growth forever, perhaps we could simply “grow” out of this debt, but this seems increasingly unlikely, for reasons I will discuss in later posts.

The United States Hit Peak Percentage Employed in 2000

If we look at the percentage of the US population who have jobs outside the home (or self-employed farm workers), the trend is quite alarming (click on Figure 12):

While the percentage of people with jobs was rising between 1960 and 2000, in recent years it has dropped. The recent drop seems to be at least in part related to the shift in energy consumption growth (and jobs) to the “Rest of the World,” which includes China, India, and many other developing countries and oil exporting countries. Jobs that the United States would have had, seem to have been shifted elsewhere.

The percentage of US population employed outside the home or farm has grown for a very long time.  The increase started in the 1800s, as the use of coal allowed a reduction to the number of workers needed in farming, because it allowed more use of metals, enabled the use of electricity, and helped make farmers more efficient. See my post The Long-Term Tie Between Energy Supply, Population, and the Economy. See also Smil, (1994) and Lebergott (1966).  Later, women increasingly joined the work force, especially after World War II.

The combination of rising energy costs (especially oil) and increased international trade gave China and other Far Eastern countries an opportunity to ramp up their manufacturing and service industries (call centers in India, for example). Jobs migrated to China and to other countries with low energy costs (thanks to lots of coal in the mix) and low costs of  living, thanks in part to better solar heating.

There had always been some foreign trade, but the amount of trade increased in the late 1970s, when we started importing smaller cars from Japan, as well as more oil. It increased again later, especially after China entered the World Trade Organization in late 2001. US imports of goods and services increased from $54 billion in 1970,  to $291 billion in 1980, to $616 billion in 1990, to $1.4 trillion in 2000, and to $2.7 trillion in 2011 (US Bureau of Economic Analysis).

Other Observations

Role of World Trade. Figure 4 suggests that world trade makes a huge difference in the amount of energy consumed. If we truly wanted to reduce our energy consumption (which I doubt world leaders are really interested in), we could reduce world trade through taxes on imports, or some other mechanism. The number of people employed would likely drop as well, although perhaps part of the difference could be made up by greater efficiency and by lower wages for individual workers.

The important role of world trade also brings up another issue. If world trade were, for some reason, interrupted or seriously scaled back, this would likely significantly reduce energy consumption (and employment) around the world.

Energy Consumption vs Number of Jobs Patterns by Country will Vary. I have shown US data. Patterns in other countries are likely to vary, in part because of the different specializations (amount of services compared to manufacturing, for example) of different countries, and different wage levels in different countries.

Good Intentions Aren’t Always Helpful. The Kyoto Protocol with respect to Climate Change was adopted in 1997. Figure 4 and Figure 5 suggest that adding China to the World Trade Organization had far more impact, and in the opposite direction. In fact, additional carbon taxes on goods that require high energy input may have encouraged competition in countries without such controls. Furthermore, reduced oil consumption through, say, higher taxes on gasoline, left more oil on the world market, to be used by developing countries. (This is related to “inelastic supply” of oil. Reducing demand in one area leaves more supply for other areas.) 

Figure 13  shows that while Kyoto Protocol may have helped reduce emissions in some countries, world carbon dioxide emissions have grown more than what would have been expected, based on the 1987-1997 trend in emissions. If the Kyoto Protocol influenced China’s and the rest of Asia’s decision to ramp up exports, this decision would have indirectly affected job availability in the United States, even if the US was not a signer of the Protocol.

The “Smaller Batch” Issue. If there is not enough energy to go around at prices people can afford to pay, recession seems to be nature’s way of fixing the situation. I compare the situation to a chemical formula, or to a cake recipe. If one necessary ingredient is in short supply, the economy behaves as if it is making a “smaller batch”. It contracts in a way that leaves out those who were most marginal to begin with–such as employees of discretionary industries, and borrowers who could only barely make payments on loans (subprime borrowers), and countries with the highest energy costs. Employment is reduced, and unemployed people tend to move in with friends or their family, to cut expenses. This reduces energy consumption.

Increased Wage Dispersion May Reflect Another of Nature’s Coping Mechanisms. In the animal kingdom, any “K-selected species,” such as a dog or cats or primates, (probably including humans), has an inborn instinct toward hierarchical behavior. The manifestation of this instinct tends to be greater as there is greater crowding, and greater competition for resources (Dilworth, 2009). The intent in the animal kingdom is survival of the fittest, with those at the bottom of the hierarchy being starved out, if there is not enough to go around.

It is striking to me that since the mid-1970s, we have seen what could perhaps be interpreted as increased hierarchical behavior in humans and corporations. Wage dispersion has tended to become greater since the mid-1970s, when we started encountering energy supply problems. We have also seen the growth of international businesses. These large businesses have been increasingly favorably taxed, because they can choose tax havens around the world to incorporate. All of these changes tend to concentrate wealth at the top, in large companies and in the wealth of high paid workers. Perhaps all of this is a coincidence, but the timing is striking.

Increased use of part-time and contract jobs might be considered a trend in this direction as well. Job sharing has been proposed as a way of dealing with having an inadequate number of jobs in the older industrialized countries, but this tends to act in the same way (pushes the wages of lower-paid workers down, while leaving the top wages untouched).

Economic Models. Economic models seem not to take into account the very substantial shift in percentage of the population employed. Part of economic growth on the “way up” was growth in the percentage of people employed. If economists miss this change, as well as the fact that the percentage now seems to be headed down, their models will be wrong. Expected economic growth may disappear.

The World War II baby boom generation is now reaching retirement age. This change will tend to push the percentage of population employed down further, all other things being equal.

Impact on Governments. If fewer people are employed, this is a problem for governments around the world. Governments in Europe are particularly affected now, partly because of the generous benefits they offer. The US budget deficit is very much related to this issue as well. I will write more about debt and government funding in another post.


[1] The idea of looking at employment in relationship to the economy came after reading Mario Giampietro and Kozo Mayumi’s book, The Biofuel Delusion: The Fallacy of Large-Scale Agro-Biofuel Production, Earthscan, 2009.

[2] While total energy costs are important, individual energy costs, such as gasoline cost, are important as well, because there is little short-term substitutability across sectors. For example, coal is not an option for running today’s gasoline-powered cars, and public transport is not an option in most of the US. If there is a long enough lead-time and citizens can afford the transition, substitutions might be made, but it is not something we can count very much in the short term.

Other References

Hamilton, J. D. Historical oil shocks. NBER working paper No. 16790. Feb 2011. Available from

Toosi, M. A Century of Change; the US Labor Force 1950 to 2050, in Monthly Labor Review, Bureau of Labor Statistics, May 2002. Available from

Smil, Vaclav, Energy in World History, Westview Press, 1994.

Lebergott, S. Labor Force and Employment 1800 to 1960, in Brady, D. S., Editor, Output, Employment and Productivity in the United States after 1800, National Bureau of Economic Research. (1966) Available at

Dilworth, C. Too Smart for Our Own Good, Cambridge University Press, 2009.

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