By David Kurlander

On November 12th, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that 4.4 million Americans quit their jobs in September, breaking the record of 4.3 million resignations in August. Heather Cox Richardson and Joanne Freeman discussed the accelerating quitting trend on this week’s Now & Then episode, “Mill ‘Girls,’ Company Men, & the Great Resignation,” with Joanne suggesting that Americans are undergoing a serious collective reevaluation of “their lives and their connection with work.” This latest reckoning evokes the politics of work in 1987, when a Hudson Institute study called Workforce 2000 sparked a powerful conversation about the rise of the service economy.  

The American workforce shifted dramatically during the first half of the 1980s. The manufacturing sector shrunk by 2.6 million jobs between 1979 and 1983. The decline in manufacturing ran in parallel with a massive increase in the service economy. These jobs—in education, healthcare, IT, engineering, and finance—increased by 23% in 1985 alone. So-called “low-skill jobs,” while improved over 1983 levels due to a healthier economy, increased by only 12%. The dearth of jobs for ‘unskilled’ laborers was dangerous news for an American population with an estimated 30 million people who could not read above a 5th grade level. 

President Reagan’s Labor Secretary, Bill Brock, recognized the necessity of government intervention to meet the changing nature of work. At first glance, Brock was an unlikely champion for a labor reckoning because of his arch-conservative past. As a young Tennessee congressman, Brock voted against the 1964 Civil Rights Act. He defeated Tennessee Democratic Senator Al Gore Sr. in 1970; political journalist David Halberstam accused Brock of running a “shabby racist campaign” after Brock attacked Gore’s support for race-integration busing and crafted highway billboards reading “Bill Brock Believes in the Things We Believe In.” Brock went on to serve as Chairman of the Republican National Committee in the aftermath of Watergate, effectively paving the way for Ronald Reagan’s 1980 election. 

As his career progressed, however, Brock denounced his earlier positions on race and increasingly focused on the minority Americans that he believed the GOP had left behind. As Labor Secretary, Brock rankled Reagan administration hardliners by supporting affirmative action and occupational safety standards

In 1986, Brock empowered Assistant Secretary of Labor, IBM veteran Roger Semerad, to commission a study on future projections of the American workforce. Semerad turned to the Hudson Institute, an Indianapolis-based think tank founded in the early 1960s by nuclear strategist Herman Kahn. Hudson had long been known for its influential prognostications—many of the predictions about computers, lasers, and weather forecasting from the Institute’s 1967 futurist text The Year 2000 had already come to pass.

The Hudson Institute released Workforce 2000: Work and Workers for the 21st Century in July 1987, following a seven-month study. They forecast a massive decline in the labor share of white men and a concurrent rise in female and minority workers. They also suggested that “all of the new jobs and most of the new wealth” would emerge from the service industry. 

As a result of the rise of service jobs, the report envisioned a radically different culture of work at the Millennium: “Service jobs tend to be located where and when the customers want them, rather than centralized as are manufacturing jobs. Partly as a result, the typical workplace in the future will have fewer people, and the average workweek will become shorter with more people employed part time.”

The report also warned that the transition would signal a further polarization of the economy: “Very few new jobs will be created for those who cannot read, follow directions, and use mathematics. Ironically, the demographic trends in the workforce, coupled with the higher skill requirements of the economy, will lead to both higher and lower unemployment: more joblessness among the least-skilled and less among the most educationally-advantaged.” 

The Hudson Institute’s project leader, William Johnston, summed up the findings to USA Today, saying, “We’re creating fewer bolt-tightening jobs and more technical and professional jobs.” 

The report instantly sent shockwaves through Washington. Many pundits praised the study’s even-handedness and its identification of the potential for further entrenchment of racial and economic inequalities. The Baltimore Sun’s editorial board singled out Brock for his willingness to take on the project: “In a political arena in which empty ideology and blind partisan allegiance too often substitute for common sense, Mr. Brock’s progressive pragmatism is a breath of fresh air.” 

Shortly after the report’s release, Brock left the Department of Labor to serve as campaign manager for Bob Dole’s ill-fated 1988 presidential run. On October 7th, 1988, just weeks before leaving office, Brock offered a speech outside of Carpenter’s Hall in Philadelphia—a colonial-era trade craft guild that had housed the first Continental Congress in 1774. After waxing nostalgic on Philadelphia’s role in the history of American manufacturing, Brock pivoted to discuss Workforce 2000. “Think of it as a Manhattan Project for skills, an absolute commitment to human development,” he said, before encouraging policymakers to expand educational and job-training programs to meet the upcoming challenges.

Semerad was slightly blunter in his own assessment of the report’s takeaways. “We’re going to need these school dropouts, the functional illiterates, the welfare dependent, the pregnant teenagers, the drug abusers—but they have to be qualified to take the jobs coming down the road,” he told the Wall Street Journal

Washington responded to the clarion call. On October 8th, 1987, President Reagan shouted out the report in his proclamation announcing National Job Skills Week. “The Department of Labor’s Workforce 2000 study indicates a continuing vital need for job skills training,” Reagan wrote in a statement. “This situation may afford unique opportunities for people from groups that historically have not entered the labor market.” 

Over the next two years, Democratic California Representative Augustus Hawkins led the Workforce 2000 charge in the House, focusing on the importance of securing more federal funds for jobs training programs. Hawkins had been the first Black congressman elected West of the Mississippi when he joined the House in 1963. He had long been a leader in employment equality, helping to draft Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which helped to create the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). 

In May 1989, Hawkins introduced HR 2235: Workforce 2000 Employment Readiness Act of 1989. Hawkins proposed an $850 million Education Readiness Fund to provide scholarships to minority students entering engineering and chemistry programs. He coupled the new funds with enhanced oversight measures for the EEOC and other affirmative action watchdog groups.  “Basically, H.R. 2235 links civil rights and federal contract compliance with the funding of a targeted education program,” Hawkins explained in a syndicated op-ed. 

 “The political Rip Van Winkles must wake up and join this effort to prepare our workforce for the year 2000,” Hawkins wrote in the same piece. He also criticized Republicans, arguing that the gutting of Great Society education programs like Head Start were in part to blame for the intensifying labor inequality: “In the lean Reagan years, most of these programs have been non-existent.” 

In May 1989, Brock—by this point a private citizen—testified before a House Committee on Education and Labor hearing on Hawkins’ proposal and effectively co-signed Hawkins’ plan; a far cry from 1964. The bill, however, languished in the House and never was brought to a vote.  

On the Senate side, Massachusetts Senator Ted Kennedy, who chaired the Committee on Labor and Human Resources, called hearings in January 1989 on the role of poverty and education failings in the labor shortage. Kennedy updated the infamous and not totally accurately-quoted 1953 statement by Eisenhower Defense Secretary and General Motors executive Charles Wilson (“What’s good for GM is good for America”) to suggest the importance of training America’s working-class youth for the service economy: “To paraphrase the saying of a generation ago: What is good for Roxbury, Harlem and Watts is good for General Motors, IBM, and AT&T.” 

By 1990, the phrase “Workforce 2000” had become a near-constant in congressional parlance. “Perhaps not since the days of the Great Society has a government report become so quickly etched in the minds of federal policy-makers as the ‘Workforce 2000’ study,” suggested Washington Post reporter Frank Swoboda in a November 1990 summation of the report’s impact

Meaningful employment diversity initiatives would emerge during the Bush and Clinton administrations, and the Hudson Institute even issued a 1997 follow-up report called Workforce 2020. The ambitious legislative proposals that emerged in the immediate aftermath of Workforce 2000, though, were largely left by the wayside. 

The report’s specific projections have been debated and reconsidered over the decades, but the central contention—that the rise of the service economy would create a polarized workforce and a sense of collective dislocation—appear prescient considering the Great Resignation and our broader recontextualization of the ethics and exclusionary elements of our current work landscape.  

For more on the 1980s labor market, check out economist Thomas Hyclak’s 2000 Rising Wage Inequality: The 1980s Experience in Urban Labor Markets.

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