Peter S Magnusson, a Swedish American computer entrepreneur doing his second startup, got, as he puts it, Instapundited and Slashdotted for this post. Its called For the first time in 10,000 years farming is not the dominating industry. Peter points out that while the newspapers missed this macro turnover point, micro-focusing quite understandably on the comparative productivity rates of Chinese and American workers, it is a major event:

This is a huge milestone. In the west we’re accustomed to the farming sector being 4-6% or so, but that certainly has not been true in most of the word. You might think the industrial revolution was a long time ago, but the reality is that farming has remained the center of the overall human condition. Until sometime in these past few years, that is….Farming, invented around 8000 BC, quickly dominated human activity and has continued to for some 10,000 years.

Let’s zoom back a little further. Say to 100,000 years and the dawn of our species. Until about 10,000 years ago all humans lived a hunter gathering lifestyle. Ever since most humans have lived an agricultural lifestyle. The industrial revolution started in Europe about 1750 and has been spreading around the world ever since. When you think about it the industrial revolution requires the industrialization of agriculture. Unless the percentage of the population engaged in agriculture is reduced there are not enough people released to work in industry. Put another way what has happened is that agricultural productivity per worker has increased so much that on a global basis farming is no longer the dominant occupation.

Here is a graph from UC Berkeley economist Brad DeLong who specializes in long term estimates of total human production – in economic terms World Real GDP – for the last million years using three different models:


Notice – it has been going up. Population follows the same path – more people equals more production. For the hunter gatherer phase more mouths to feed means more game, berries, and grubs to be found. Notice that about 10,000 years ago the graph steepens. That’s agriculture kicking in. Farming has worked well and kept on working at supporting a growing population right up to the present. But the impact of the industrial revolution isn’t apparent in this graph. Lets look at GDP per capita – how much is produced per person – to appreciate the impact of industrialization.


Again, DeLong uses the same three models all telling a similar story. The amount of wealth produced per person stays roughly flat until the industrial revolution. Increases in food production were absorbed by increases in population in both the hunter gatherer and agricultural phases. But with the industrial revolution this pattern changes. And the way both curves are slowing down may mean we are seeing the beginnings of another macro change.

We know that long industrialized nations have reduced population growth to below replacement levels. What is less known is that over the past 50 years as countries industrialize their wealth and health improve and their population levels off. Another Swede, Hans Rosling, has the most surprising and engaging presentation of these macro trends here. If you haven’t seen it watch – it will almost certainly change your picture of the world and it is a lot of fun.

Peter S. Magnusson notices something else about the shift from agricultural age to industrial age:

…modernization of large economies is largely bypassing industrialization and going straight to the service sectors – in the western economies the service sector was about two-thirds of the economy, and has grown further (to 71.2%). But so many workers are moving straight to service industries that their roles have changed. Worldwide, in 1996 agriculture employed 42%, industry 21%, and services 37%. In 2006, the numbers are 36%, 22%, and 42%. So in the period, the service sector has overtaken farming on a global scale…. And we even find that the agriculture->industry->services transition doesn’t hold up globally. The industry segment simply isn’t big enough, so increasingly workers go directly from farming to services.

You will notice that the curves in both the DeLong graphs are slowing down. Hans Roslings picture of a world where population is leveling off as wealth and health increase is showing up in the big picture. It also looks to me that at this macro level, once there is enough food and manufactured goods, then human activity diverts to services. I find it encouraging that we seem to have some built in radar that slows down our population growth as we get wealthier. We have huge hurdles facing us as a species – finding sustainable energy sources and controlling our impact on the planetary environment. It is not like we don’t have problems but the good news is that the pressure is no longer increasing exponentially as it has for 100,000 years or even a million.

Update: Really nice post from sippicancottage catching the feeling of how important this event is here:

One Response to “How Ya Gonna Keep ‘em Down On The Farm?”  

  1. 1 Once in ten thousand years in the job market — EXCELER8ion | People ARE The Social Media

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