August 23, 2018

Fascinating facts in dusty old tomes

Now that virtually all the data and information we need can be sourced online, most of us at BERL hardly use books for our work. But the recent refurbishment of the BERL offices highlighted the fact that we still have a treasure trove of printed works in our possession. Many of our books were disposed of, or stored away, but some of the more attractive and interesting volumes have been kept on display.

One of the oldest is the New Zealand Official Year-Book for 1898, which was prepared by the Registrar-General’s Office, under instructions from the Right Honourable R.J. Seddon, P.C. This contains data going back to 1888. In the late 1880s, the population of the Colony (as it was then) was estimated to be 768,910; there were 1,946 manufactories that had a total capital value of ₤5,096,530; and the value of the largest export (wool, of course) was ₤3,115,098.

Some of these numbers are difficult to comprehend in modern day terms, but a more recent volume – the New Zealand Official Year Book for 1968 – includes data that is easier to grasp. Amongst other things, it highlights the fact that the workforce has undergone some enormous changes in what is little more than the average working lifetime.

Compared to 50 years ago, a much larger proportion of the population is now in the labour force, and a much larger proportion of the employed workforce is female. In April 1967, the size of the labour force was estimated to be 1,046,900, which was equivalent to 38.4 percent of the total population. 50 years later, the size of the labour force was 2,632,300, which was equivalent to 55.1 percent of the total population. In April 1967, females accounted for 27.6 percent of the employed workforce, and 50 years later their share had increased to 47.1 percent.

The table below shows how the distribution of employment by industry group has change over the past 50 years; and it reveals several dramatic shifts. The share of employment in the Primary industries and Manufacturing has decreased significantly. At the same time, the share of employment in Commerce has increased. However, perhaps the most noteworthy change has been the enormous increase in the share of employment in Administration and the professions.

* includes Wholesale, Retail, Accommodation, Finance and other private business services

**includes Public administration, Safety, Education, Health and other public services

1967 Industry group     Share of employed labour force
1967  2017 
Primary industries 12.8% 6.7%
Manufacturing 27.7% 10.00%
Utilities 1.4% 0.8%
Building and construction 8.8% 9.5%
Transport and communications 9.5% 5.8%
Commerce* 18.0% 24.5%
Domestic and personal services 5.2% 5.9%
Administration and professional** 16.5% 36.9%

It should be noted that the definitions of the various industry groups were revised to a certain extent between 1967 and 2017, but the overall picture of employment change presented in the table is reasonably reliable.

More importantly, though, the table raises the question of what will happen to the distribution of employment over the next 50 years.

In answering the question, the temptation is to assume that the broad pattern of change will continue, and that we will see a continuing shift of employment away from the Primary industries and Manufacturing, towards Administration and professional and Commerce. However, life is not like that, and it is possible to envisage an entirely different outcome.

Advances in IT could wipe out much of the employment in Administration and professional and Commerce. And factors like climate change, and new consumer and market preferences, could see a revival in employment in the Primary industries and Manufacturing. We have already seen a few examples of this sort of employment change, with online accounting services taking away service sector jobs, and a market shift towards craft beers creating new employment in hop-growing and micro-brewing.

Watch this space. We will update this article in August 2068.