WASHINGTON—Women overtook men to hold the majority of U.S. jobs for the first time in a decade, while employers added positions for a record 10th straight year, pointing to a growing and dynamic economy heading into 2020.
The number of women on nonfarm payrolls exceeded men in December for the first time since mid-2010, Labor Department data released Friday showed. Women held 50.04% of jobs last month, surpassing men on payrolls by 109,000.
“Increasingly, the fortunes of women in the labor market will determine the overall outcomes of the labor market because they will be the predominant share,” said Marianne Wanamaker, a labor economist at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, and former adviser to President Trump.
Overall, the economy added a seasonally adjusted 145,000 jobs last month, and unemployment stayed at a 50-year low of 3.5%. In one dark spot, wages advanced 2.9% from a year earlier, the smallest annual gain since July 2018. Stock-market indexes were down slightly early Friday afternoon.
The gap between men and women on payrolls had been narrowing in recent years, reflecting growth in services industries that employ higher numbers of women, especially the booming health-care field. That is a different outcome than the one other time that women outnumbered men—a stretch in 2009 and 2010—when men disproportionately lost construction and manufacturing jobs.
Women account for a larger share of U.S. adults but are less likely to work than men, according to a separate Labor Department survey. But their participation in the labor force has been growing, especially among younger and Hispanic workers, helping drive job gains. Men, meanwhile, are more likely to hold nonpayroll jobs, such as being self-employed or working on farms.
December’s jobs report capped a decade of payroll gains—the longest stretch in 80 years of record-keeping.
Employers are adding jobs, despite low unemployment, by pulling workers off the sidelines—including women, Hispanics, blacks and those with lower levels of education that have historically faced barriers to employment. However, those jobs are often in lower-paying fields, and those workers tend to be paid less than white, male counterparts.
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An alternative measure, which captures underemployed and those marginally attached to the workforce, the U-6, fell to 6.7%, the lowest on records back to 1994. But the share of adults working or looking for work held steady last month at 63.2% and remains well down from a peak of 67.3% in 2000.
That indicates slack remains in the labor market, which could propel job gains but restrain wage growth into next year.
“Slow wage growth is not good news for workers today, but it could be good news rolling into 2020” if it means job growth continues, said Claudia Sahm, macroeconomic policy director at the Washington Center for Equitable Growth and a former Federal Reserve economist.
For all of last year, employers added 2.11 million jobs. That was a slowdown from 2018’s robust gain of 2.68 million and ranked 2019 eighth for job growth in the past 10 years. A cooler pace of hiring in part reflected global economic uncertainty and the fading effects of tax cuts that took effect in 2018.
The latest data is likely to keep the Fed comfortable with its make-no-moves posture as officials look for evidence that last year’s slowdown in manufacturing, investment and trade hasn’t spilled into the broader consumer-driven economy. Ms. Sahm said the Fed is unlikely to take action to cool economic growth without seeing wage pressure, and workers finding jobs who haven’t held one in years will fare better when a downturn occurs.
For all of last year, hiring remained strong in health care, hospitality and other services sectors. Job gains cooled sharply in manufacturing and transportation and warehousing, and eased in construction.
For the decade, the U.S. added 22.6 million jobs, a dramatic turnaround from the 2000s, when the economy shed nearly 1 million. Still, in percentage terms, the 2010s were the second weakest decade for payroll growth on records back to the 1940s.
Average hourly earnings in December increased 3 cents to $28.32. The year-over-year gain is still above inflation but modest relative to other periods with historically low unemployment. Wages for rank-and-file workers grew at a slightly faster rate, up 3% in December from a year earlier, but the pace of those gains has cooled sharply from a 3.6% annual increase in October.
Weak wage growth could in part reflect a calendar quirk. This December, the 12th of the month, the date on which the wage survey is based, and the 15th, a common payday, didn’t fall in the same week—something that often leads to artificially depressed wage-growth calculations. The dates fall in the same week in January and February.
December’s wage slowdown also partially reflects a large jump in retail jobs at the height of the holiday-shopping season. Retailers added 41,200 jobs, the largest monthly increase since January 2017.
Jenny Vega is among the Americans seeing bigger paychecks. Late last year, the 30-year-old took a job guiding jets as a ramp agent for Alaska Airlines at Seattle’s international airport. The job pays more than $16 an hour—at least a $2 hourly increase from what she earned at recent retail and warehouse jobs—and offered overtime during the holiday travel season.
That helped pay for Christmas presents for her two daughters, Ms. Vega said.
“It really stinks to be out there for 10 hours when it’s raining,” she said. “But once you get that paycheck, you don’t cry too much.”