Why jobs require cities

By Felix Salmon
February 2, 2012

Many thanks to Mark Bergen for finding me this data; I asked him for it because I thought that maybe we could learn something from the way in which China has managed to keep employment growing steadily through some extremely turbulent economic times.

industry.jpg

What you’re looking at here is total Chinese employment from the All China database. Primary industry is commodities, basically, including agriculture; secondary industry is manufacturing; tertiary industry is services.

It comes as little surprise to see that agricultural employment has been falling steadily for 20 years. But it is surprising to see that if you take out the services sector, total Chinese employment has been going nowhere, and basically falling, for the same amount of time.

Caroline Baum, using a different data source, says that China lost 15 million manufacturing jobs between 1995 and 2002; according to these figures, employment in “secondary industry” was flat in those years, going from 156.6 million to 156.8 million before starting to rise again and reaching 218.4 million in 2010. (It’s worth pausing here to appreciate the sheer scale of this chart: each horizontal line is another 100 million workers.)

Meanwhile, the services industry — tertiary industry — has been on fire: it now employs 263 million people, more than are employed in secondary industry, and has doubled since 1992. All this, remember, in a country with more or less flat population growth, thanks to the one-child policy.

Of course it’s hard to find work in the services industry if you’re a rural peasant: tertiary industry is a fundamentally urban thing, which brings me to my second chart.

rural.jpg

It comes as no surprise to see that urban employment is growing incredibly fast — 13.7 million urban jobs were created in China in 2010 alone. What does come as a surprise is to see that urban jobs are still in the minority in China — which means that there’s a lot of room for growth going forwards.

In the U.S., we had a huge construction boom in the aughts, which was concentrated on building bigger suburban and exurban residential houses. That’s good for homebuilders and makers of granite countertops, but it doesn’t really boost the economy more broadly. The Chinese construction boom, by contrast, is building cities and roads and crucial infrastructure, which allows the service economy to keep on growing at a torrid place.

Realistically, there is very little chance that global manufacturing employment is going to increase in future at a rate which will provide jobs for a growing global population. If we’re going to find jobs in the U.S. and the rest of the world, they’re going to have to be found in exactly the area where China is finding them — tertiary industry, or services.

How do you create service-industry jobs? By investing in cities and inter-city infrastructure like smart grids and high-speed rail. Services flourish where people are close together and can interact easily with the maximum number of people. If we want to create jobs in America, we should look to services, rather than the manufacturing sector. And while it’s hard to create those jobs directly, you can definitely try to do it indirectly, by building the platforms on which those jobs are built. They’re called cities. And America is, sadly, very bad at keeping its cities modern and flourishing. 1950s-era suburbia won’t cut it any more. But who in government is going to embrace our urban future?

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