The 1990s were a boom time for jobs and the economy in the United States. Unemployment was low--hitting an all-time record of 3.8 percent, meaning that most everyone who wanted to work, could. Median income for a household, which on average consisted of 2.67 members, hovered around $56,985. The dot.com industry was flourishing, and the economy was not hampered by a mortgage bubble or a war in the Middle East. The job market hit its peak during the decade.
Earnings Remained Stagnant
Although job growth was at an all-time high, the average wage didn’t grow that significantly, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Economic expansion stayed in growth mode for nine years in the 1990s, leading to an increase in 16.5 million jobs. Median weekly earnings for U.S workers were $447 in 1989 and increased only 6.9 percent to $478 by 1999. Low- and high-paying jobs saw the most increase, while the middle-earnings group changed negligibly.
Job Growth Outpaced Earnings
High-earning professional services jobs, such as executives in real estate, finance and insurance, as well as experienced precision production workers, grew the most at 90.9 percent. Earnings for these professions, however, only increased 5.5 percent. Those making top wages in the construction sales profession added jobs at a rate of 1 percent and actually lost median average earnings that fell 15 percent. Technicians in transportation and public utilities, clerical and administrative roles, and middle management in retail grew 147.5 percent, with an average loss in earnings of 9.8 percent. The highest job growth in the lower wage earning population was in direct sales of professional services and retail goods, which grew 40.3 percent in the 1990s and saw a 15.3 percent increase in earnings.
Success Had Its Costs
Consumer spending was exploding in the '90s, just as personal debt was mounting and investors were reaping amazing rewards from a rising stock market. The middle class didn’t have much to gain or lose in the stock market, however, with the average household holding only $7,800 of all investment products, compared with the wealthiest that held an average of $2.5 million. At the same time, while jobs were plentiful, fewer employers were providing health insurance to employees. About 30 percent of workers lacked coverage. Combined with the growing movement offshore of American manufacturing jobs, the middle class 1990s boom was not the huge win many workers thought they experienced.
Workers Were the Ultimate Winners
Even though wages didn’t keep pace with job growth, it was middle class workers who saw the greatest long-term job security in the 1990s. A big part of that resurgence was the number of workers who earned advanced degrees and took advantage of educational opportunities, which put many Americans in a position to compete globally for white-collar jobs. Americans who improved their educational status actually benefited from the increase in global trading. While manufacturing jobs declined by about 600,000, the greatest job growth was seen in fishing, forestry and agricultural services, with the mining industry close behind. The financial services, insurance and real estate sectors grew the most and jobs utilizing burgeoning technology that required a higher education saw a boost that continues into the 21st century.
- New York Magazine: Will the Economy Ever Be As Good As It Was in the ’90s?
- U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics: Earnings and Employment Trends in the 1990s
- Economic Policy Institute: Economic ‘Boom’ of the 1990s is a Bust for the Middle Class
- Bloomberg Business: Restating the '90s
- Indiana Business Review: A Graphic Overview of Employment and Earnings in the 1990s
- Pew Research Center: Household Size Trends
- Photo Credit Dario Lo Presti/iStock/Getty Images