Just How Many People Really Need to Work?

Sometimes, the oddest questions pop into my mind. I’m not entirely sure where they come from, much of the time; you spend enough time with your mind roaming randomly, and it’s amazing what comes to mind. Given that I run a personal finance blog, and it’s also not terribly surprising that more than a few such questions involve personal finance. Questions such as

What’s the smallest number of people who need to keep working in the United States to keep society functioning?

This question came to mind when I was thinking about early retirement, and how the goal of many personal finance books, from The 4-Hour Workweek to Laughing at Wall Street, is to give you the opportunity to retire early and spend most of your adult life relaxing and partying throughout the world. Yes, that’s definitely good for you, but it’s possible to go too far: if EVERYONE in the country retired, there would be nobody left to do all the needed work.

Including bulldozer related work, of course

My question is, how many people need to keep working in order to keep the country running, if the rest of us were to, say, develop passive income sources sufficient to allow us to spend all our time relaxing and traveling the world? There’s currently about 196,303,000 adults of working age in the United States (those between the ages of 18 and 65); how many of them really need to work to keep the economy working more or less as it currently? Currently, there’s only 128,279,000 adults listed as working by Bureau of Labor Statistics, or about 65%, so more than a third of the working age (18-65 years old) population can be unemployed or imprisoned (or sipping mimosas on the beach, let’s say) without collapsing the economy; how much further can we go?

(Note before we begin: There’s obviously likely to be some disagreement on what is, and what isn’t, an essential job to keep the economy running. These are my opinions; please feel free to share your own opinions on what needs to be included to keep things running in this country. Maybe you think I’m underestimating how important a particular class of job is, maybe you feel we could cut far more before the country as a whole starts to suffer; either way, let me know and we can debate the issue.)

Let’s go through the Bureau of Labor Statistics National Occupational Employment data, to see what sectors (or parts of sectors) we can do without, starting with:

Management Occupations: Well, here’s a good place to start making some cuts, and not just because this is the category that includes Legislators (all 62,180 of them). I think there’s not too many people, at least not too many non-managers, who’d argue that we can’t trim some of the the fat here at least a bit. If we cut a quarter of the 6,184,000 management occupations, we’d give 1,546,000 people a chance to join passive income earners of the world.

Total Jobs Cut: 1,546,000

Business and Financial Operations Occupations: Another area where we can probably cut a few positions without drawing too much ire, as this includes everything from HR personnel to auditors. If we can’t cut, say, at least a fifth of them (1,236,000) from various positions without the rest of the economy collapsing, I don’t know where we can look to make these cuts.

Total Jobs Cut: 2,782,000

Computer and Mathematical Occupations: Ah, now we’re getting to the good stuff. Given that most of us have reached the point where we all but need our computers in order to survive, I’d say that this is an area where we can make limited cuts. Given that ‘mathematical’ jobs make up just over one hundred thousand of the three point four million jobs listed, there’s probably not too many we can cut if we want to be able to keep surfing the web and raking in our passive income. So, no jobs cut from here.

Total Jobs Cut: 2,782,000

Architecture and Engineering Occupations: Another kind of tricky one. It’s hard to see too many places in this category where we could make cuts, as long as we want to keep growing as a country. Still, we could probably cut ten percent of these positions from various fields (231,000) and not adversely affect the economy too much.

Total Jobs Cut: 3,013,000

Life, Physical, and Social Science Occupations: Speaking of areas where we should keep up employment levels to grow the country, the sciences probably should be one where we try to keep most of the people still working (and since it is my field, I am a little biased). On the other hand, it does include some fields of questionable value (like economists; just kidding, economists!), and we can probably trim ten percent (108,000) from here, as well.

Total Jobs Cut: 3,121,000

Community and Social Service Occupations: A pretty broad mix of occupations here, from counselors to clergy (alright, I suppose there is a common theme of, well, counseling). I’m sure this is an area where someone who doesn’t have much faith in the ability of counseling to help people could make a huge number of cuts, but I’ll stick with a relatively modest twenty percent (378,000) to make sure there’s counseling services still available to those who need it.

Total Jobs Cut: 3,499,000

Legal Occupations: I realize the first instinct you might have is to get rid of the entire field, or most of the more than half a million lawyers, at least. But they do serve some useful purposes. Let’s say that we can cut about 300,000 from the legal ranks, before we see too much of a downside.

Total Jobs Cut: 3,799,000

Education, Training, and Library Occupations: It’s hard to argue that we shouldn’t have teachers, and I’ll be far from the one to try to do that. Still, as with most of our groups so far, we can probably trim at least ten percent (841,000) without causing too much trouble, particularly if more people have the time to learn for themselves following high school/college.

Total Jobs Cut: 4,640,000

Arts, Design, Entertainment, Sports, and Media Occupations: Another area where many people would say we could cut out the entire group and still have a pretty decent life. Of course, as this group covers everything from actors to athletes, musicians to media workers, it could be a pretty boring life. Still, we can probably cut out a third of this group (575,000) before our lives get too boring.

Total Jobs Cut: 5,215,000  (We’ve managed to cut over five million, and we still have plenty of job classes to go.)

Healthcare Practitioners and Technical Occupations: Another area that’s pretty hard to argue could be easily dropped; nobody wants to find themselves in a world where there are no doctors, pharmacists, or vets around. On the other hand, it’s hard to argue that there’s no room for cuts at all when the first profession listed is ‘chiropractor’. (Sorry, chiropractors; I had a jerk of an uncle who was a chiropractor). So, let’s say that we can probably cut our usual 10% (751,000) without too many worries.

Total Jobs Cut: 5,966,000

Healthcare Support Occupations: Much as with the healthcare practitioners themselves, we don’t want to cut too many jobs here, at least until we find a way to transfer our consciousness into indestructible machines. Still, also as with the healthcare practitioners, we should be able to trim some fat, say 10% (395,000), without too much trouble.

Total Jobs Cut: 6,361,000

Protective Service Occupations: This includes everything from firefighters to lifeguards to police, so it’s a tough one to cut. Still, if we can decrease the number of people we need to imprison (say, by loosening rules related to drug use and other non-violent crimes), we should be able to cut at least 10% (320,000) from here.

Total Jobs Cut: 6,681,000

Food Preparation and Serving Related Occupations: On one hand, with most of the country enjoying a life of rest and leisure funded by passive income, you’d think we need more, not less, people working in restaurants and bars. On the other hand, if you think that waiters, waitresses, and fast food workers aren’t going to be amongst the first to try to get out of their jobs if given the slightest opportunity, you’ve never had one of those types of positions. I’d expect at LEAST 2,000,000 (of the eleven million current workers) would take the first opportunity to call it a career and take advantage of passive income, if they had the chance.

Total Jobs Cut: 8,681,000

Building and Grounds Cleaning and Maintenance Occupations: Another area where we need people, if we want the country to stay tidy, but the workers themselves are likely more than willing to take their leave. Let’s say about 20% (838,000) can do so before the country gets too messy for us to stand.

Total Jobs Cut: 9,519,000

Personal Care and Service Occupations: This sounds, from the category name, like it should be people like nurses and other personal care workers, but it’s actually a mix of things like gambling supervisors, funeral directors, and bellhops. We can probably cut 20% (724,000) before we see much of a difference in our daily lives (or even in our funerals).

Total Jobs Cut: 10,243,000 (Look, we’ve cut more than ten million jobs, and we’re not done yet!)

Sales and Related Occupations: As with the lawyers, I’d expect many people would probably argue that we could cut a lot of sales people without too much damage. It’s hard to argue against that point; from online sales sites replacing many of the four million retail salesmen to automatic checkout lines cutting the need for the three million cashiers, we probably don’t need to do much cutting ourselves before it happens for us. Still, let’s say we can slice off an additional 5,000,000 (out of thirteen million) sales workers right now before we see too much of an ill effect.

Total Jobs Cut: 15,243,000

Office and Administrative Support Occupations: The category where most of our stereotypical white-collar workers fall. As with food service workers, we probably need more than we think; also as with food service workers, I’m sure more than a few would jump at the chance to no longer have to work a white-collar day job. Let’s say about a third (7,128,000) could be cut from the payroll without too much ill effect.

Total Jobs Cut: 22,371,000 (Now we’re really making some progress!)

Farming, Fishing, and Forestry Occupations: This seems like an area where not many people would still be working, and we’d be right. Even our typical 10% cut (41,000) doesn’t make much of a difference in our overall employment numbers, but let’s assume that even here, there’s fat to trim.

Total Jobs Cut: 22,412,000

Construction and Extraction Occupations: There’s probably more than a few environmentalists who think we should cut the entire ‘extraction’ part of this set of occupations, but I think we should have some domestic energy production. Still, we should be able to safely cut 10% (496,000) of these jobs and still have more than enough people to build our houses and drill our oil.

Total Jobs Cut: 22,908,000

Installation, Maintenance, and Repair Occupations: Another set of occupations that are, if anything, going to be even more necessary when everyone is enjoying an early retirement fueled by passive income. Still, there’s probably some fat to trim here, as everywhere, so let’s say we can cut another 10% (499,000).

Total Jobs Cut: 23,407,000

Production Occupations: Here’s where all those butchers and bakers and (probably) candlestick-makers  find themselves. As per usual, we can probably trim about 10% (837,000) without seeing much of an impact on the businesses themselves. (And probably will see that much of a decline as automated systems are able to replace many of these jobs.)

Total Jobs Cut: 24,244,000

Transportation and Material Moving Occupations: Once things have been produced, they need to be moved, and this is the group that moves them (and us!) around. It’s hard to argue that we no longer need to move things around, but between increases in efficiency, new types of transportation, and our general belief that we can trim a sizable portion of any job sector, I’d say we can drop at least 20% (1,728,000) without too much trouble.

Total Jobs Cut (Overall): 25,972,000

Remaining Job Total, Nationwide: 102,307,000

Percentage of Adults Employed: 52%

There you have it, we as a country could conceivably get by with just over half of the adult population employed. (Plus, I’m sure more aggressive job-cutters could probably double or even triple the number of jobs I think could be dropped, cutting that percentage down to 25% or less.) I hope you enjoyed this bit of speculation as much as I enjoyed writing it.

What do you think of my hypothetical job cuts? Was there anywhere I was too aggressive? Not aggressive enough? Any sectors that should have been cut completely, or any more that shouldn’t be touched?

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