The War on Christmas Retail Jobs

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- There were an estimated 673,000 more people working in retail in the U.S. in December than in September, according to the not-seasonally-adjusted numbers from today’s jobs report. That’s a lot! But it also represents a much smaller gain over the holiday season than used to be the norm.

The War on Christmas Retail Jobs

Yes, the “used to be” I’m referring to was a long time ago. The big declines in seasonal retail hiring came in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, and this column is not in any way meant as a commentary on the cyclical economic issues dominating media and market discussions at the moment. Still, there does seem to have been a renewed decline in the seasonality of retail hiring over the past two decades that’s a little clearer when you look at December to January declines in retail employment (although of course we won’t have this January’s number for another month).

The War on Christmas Retail Jobs

In 1993 three BLS economists looked into why seasonal employment in general had declined so much in the postwar decades, and came up with two main economy-wide explanations:

  • Women, who had traditionally made up a big part of the seasonal workforce, were increasingly working year-round as birth rates declined and child-care options expanded, and
  • Teenagers, who were also big on seasonal work, had become a smaller share of the workforce as the Baby Boomers aged into adulthood in the late 1960s through early 1980s. (The percentage of teens holding or looking for jobs has also declined a lot since the late 1970s, but this trend wasn’t as apparent in 1993 as it has become since.)

For construction, the most seasonal major sector, there was the added factor of climate as population shifted to cities in the South and West where more work could be done year-round. In retailing, the second most seasonal, the authors cited automation-enabled reductions in the need for holiday workers in retailers’ warehouses and financial processing operations, as well as a shift toward more year-round, part-time workers whose hours could be increased as Christmas neared.

What about the (modest) downward trend in seasonal retail hiring since the late 1990s? Automation could be a part of that too, along with the software-enabled rise of variable work scheduling. But the most obvious big shift would seem to have been the one toward online shopping, which moves activity from stores to delivery vans. Sure enough, employment in the couriers and messengers sector, which includes parcel delivery services such as FedEx Corp. and United Parcel Service Inc., has seen a sharp increase in seasonality over the past decade:

The War on Christmas Retail Jobs

The drop in seasonality over the past couple of years might reflect Inc.’s increasing preference for hiring its own package-deliverers. Also, it’s worth noting that the couriers and messengers sector remains much, much smaller than the retail sector, with 958,300 employees in December to retail’s 16.4 million. And yes, I also checked on the warehousing and storage sector: Its September-to-December percentage increases in employment aren’t up by much, but so many more people are working in the sector (1.1 million this December, up from 666,800 a decade earlier) that the absolute rise in seasonal employment is significant. In fact, if you add retail, couriers and messengers, and warehousing and storage together, the decline in seasonality since the late 1990s — measured either September to December or December to January — pretty much disappears. Seasonal jobs related to holiday shopping aren’t going away, then. It’s just that more and more of them aren’t in stores.

In the article, seasonality was measured by comparing seasonally adjusted jobs numbers to unadjusted ones, but I figured my September-to-December and December-to-January charts would deliver similar results and be easier to understand.

This chart only goes back to 1990 because the data series only goes back to 1990.

Amazon generally contracts with individuals and small firms to deliver packages rather than hiring employees to do so, and in theory these should show up in the couriers and messengersemployee numbers. But in practice the self-employed aren't counted in the payroll jobs numbers, and new small businesses often show up with a lag.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Justin Fox is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering business. He was the editorial director of Harvard Business Review and wrote for Time, Fortune and American Banker. He is the author of “The Myth of the Rational Market.”

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