The retail workforce quadrupled in the second half of the 20th century. Since then, jobs here have declined as a share of the economy.
You might say the end of retail began in 1997.
In that year, there were 14 million people working in retail, 14 million people working in the health & education super-sector, and 14 million people working in professional & business services. So, for a split second, there was virtual tie in the race within service jobs.
Fifteen years later, the tie-game has turned into a blow-out. Health care jobs grew by almost 50%. Professional/business services -- a catch-all that includes such wide-ranging jobs as law, software engineering, and waste management -- rode the roller-coaster of two recessions and wound up 4 million jobs bigger. And then there's retail. In 15 years, retail added only 400,000 new workers, or 26,000 jobs a year. In the time that health/education jobs grew by 50%, retail grew by 0.2%.
Here's our 1997-2012 story in a graph, with the Y-axis showing thousands of jobs.
It doesn't look like such a blow-out when you pull back the lens and take stock of the last century. Between 1940 and 1990, all three sectors above tripled their work forces while manufacturing declined and agriculture plummeted. At its midcentury zenith, as Matt Yglesias (an active proponent of the end-of-retail theme) reminds us, Sears, Roebuck & Co. was "the largest retailer in the world with more than 350,000 employees." The 1950s and '60s were the heyday of retail growth.