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August, 1986, Vol. 109, No. 8
The employment expansion
in retail trade, 1973-85
One of the largest and fastest growing industries in the United States, in terms of employment, is retail trade. Nearly 17.4 million persons were employed in this field in 1985, or more than 1 of every 6 nonagricultural wage and salary workers. From 1973 to 1985, retail trade employment expanded by 5 million, accounting for a fourth of the total nonagricultural employment increase over the period. Only services and manufacturing employed a larger number of workers, and only services; finance, insurance, and real estate; and mining exhibited a higher rate of employment growth over the 12-year period. Although growth in retail trade employment was pervasive, a closer inspection reveals that most of the increase can be attributed to very sharp expansion in two key industries within the retail trade division—eating and drinking places, and food stores.
This article discusses employment trends in retail trade as well as in key industry groups since 1973. In addition, it explores the changing demographic, occupational, and earnings characteristics of retail trade workers, as well as the incidence of self-employment in the industry. Data for the years 1973 and 1985 were chosen for comparison, because they are indicative of periods characterized by relatively robust economic activity and, more importantly, because they each represent the third year of recovery following a recession.1
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1 The business cycle expansion and contraction periods are determined by the National Bureau of Economic Research, a private, nonprofit research organization located in Cambridge, MA
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