When Jobs Were Plentiful in 1950s California

Michael Bernick
Counsel with the international law firm of Duane Morris LLP, a Milken Institute Fellow and former Director of the California Employment Development Department

the current debates over joblessness in California,  reference is made to California of previous decades when jobs
were plentiful. In particular, the 1950s California is singled out as a golden
age of employment, when jobs were available and workers in a wide range of  blue collar and manufacturing jobs as
well as white collar jobs could make a decent living.

this accurate? What does it mean for California employment strategies going forward?.

indicated in job data provided by Ms. Bonnie Graybill and Mr. Spencer Wong of
the Employment Development Department, 1950s California was a period in which
jobs sought workers. Unemployment 
was consistently under 5%  In January 1951, the state unemployment rate was 5%. Over the
next nearly seven years, through November 1957, the rate did not go over 5%,
and was under 4% for much of the time

the job growth was dramatic. In January 1951 the total number of nonfarm jobs
stood at 3,406,900. By November 1957, it was up to 4,524,300. This number is a
far cry from the 14.2 million jobs we have today (or the 15.2 million jobs we
reached in July 2007). But this seven year period represented the largest
percentage gain the state has seen.

the data, the dynamism of the 1950s California economy is captured in Kevin
Starr’s Golden Dreams: California in an Age of Abundance 1950-1963,
published earlier this year and the latest in his masterly multi-volume history
of the state. Starr sets out a state economy, fueled by defense and aerospace
plants, and an accompanying explosion in housing for the workers coming to
these plants. Whole new communities spring up overnight, in the San Fernando
Valley, in the western half of San Francisco, in the Central Valley and San
Diego suburbs.  

the state’s economy includes vibrant industries in sectors as diverse as  garment manufacturing, restaurants and
hotels, and financial services. Moreover, the workers in the non-professional
manufacturing jobs and service jobs, often in single-earner households, are
able to earn enough to purchase cars and homes and vacations and take advantage
of a high quality, highly subsidized public education system.            

has happened over the past 50 years?

a great extent, the 1950s and early 1960s represented a very brief historical
interlude in which the both the American economy in general and the California
economy in particular were so dominant after World War II, their productivity
so much greater than other countries, that an economy of abundance could be
maintained. This dominance began to change during the 1970s, and the rise of
the global economy and global competition has eroded it steadily since. Today,
not only are the defense, aerospace and heavy manufacturing jobs long gone from
California, but also global economics has caught up with a range of other
financial and business services jobs.

job abundance of the 1950s was due primarily to forces outside of state
government, not state policies. Nonetheless 1950s California is important in
understanding an economy of abundance and in defining the challenge as we look
ahead. State policies need to be tailored to private sector job growth, to innovation
and to productivity advantages. These were the hallmarks of 1950s California
jobs, and our best chance to get back to the future.

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