Thanks to a painstaking analysis by a handful of economists, it’s become clear that the data that underpin the dominant narrative—or more precisely, the way most economists interpreted the data—were way off-base. Foreign competition, not automation, was behind the stunning loss in factory jobs. And that means America’s manufacturing sector is in far worse shape than the media, politicians, and even most academics realize.
In the four decades between 1960 and 2000, US manufacturing employment was basically stable, averaging around 17.5 million jobs. Even during the 1980s and 1990s, as Korea and other smaller Asian nations joined the ranks of Germany and Japan to threaten the dominance of US factories, the absolute number of manufacturing workers stayed mostly flat. That’s why what happened next is so alarming.
Between 2000 and 2010, manufacturing employment plummeted by more than a third. Nearly 6 million American factory workers lost their jobs. The drop was unprecedented—worse than any decade in US manufacturing history. Even during the Great Depression, factory jobs shrunk by only 31%, according to a Information Technology & Innovation Foundation report. Though the sector recovered slightly since then, America’s manufacturing workforce is still more than 26% smaller than it was in 2000.