Young people sell shoes. Old people sell caskets.
These are among the lessons from an analysis of US workers by data scientist Randal Olson. Olson, whose blog is full of the surprising and informative information, examined data released by the US Bureau of Labor Statistics on the ages of workers in different industries last year.
Olson’s analysis show that shoe stores are by far the youngest workplaces. More than half of all people who sell shoes are under 26. The industries with young workers tend to be in retail or hospitality—restaurants and bars are also among the youngest, according to the statistics.
US industries with the youngest workers, 2017
In a somewhat macabre finding, the funeral home industry is the oldest, with a median age of more than 53. This is probably because customers expect a bit of maturity from funeral home workers—people are surprised when young people work in the industry. Similarly, workers at religious organizations are also among the oldest in the country.
Textile mill workers have the second-highest median age after the funeral industry. The industry is dying in the US: There were 500,000 workers in textile mills in 1990, but only a little over 110,000 today. Most workers began their career in the industry decades ago, and you won’t find many young people entering the field today. The same goes for paper products and the postal service.
US industries with the oldest workers, 2017
As funeral homes and textile mills show, the typical age of people in an industry is primarily determined by two factors.
First, there’s the typical career life cycle. People tend to do relatively low-skilled service work early in their careers—often while they finish their education or figure out what else they want to do. Later in life people settle into jobs that often require more specific skills.
The chart below, based on a visualization by Olson, shows the share of people in five broad industries over time. Around 25% of all workers age 16-24 are in the leisure or hospitality industry, versus only 5% of workers over 55.
Second, the age of workers in an industry is related to whether it is growing or not. Declining industries will have older workers that picked up the skills necessary for the work when times were better. The low-skilled manufacturing industry, which thrived in the US from the 1960s to 1980s, but has been shrinking over the last few decades, typically has older workers.
In contrast, workers in the burgeoning fields of electronic shopping and internet media tend to be younger. But as these fast-growing sectors are replaced by whatever comes next, the average age of their typical worker may, eventually, rise to what’s common at textile mills and funeral homes today.