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Is a bigger nation richer?

As the US population clock approaches 300 million, experts examine a possible link between growth and prosperity.

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In a few weeks, the US population clock will tick past 300 million. It's a symbolic moment, and over the next five Tuesdays, the Monitor will explore the ways, both profound and mundane, that this number affects the economy, the environment, how we live, and what we hope to achieve. It reveals a present far different from the US at 200 million – and portends a future of equal or even greater change.

In the past 39 years, the United States has added 100 million people – the biggest population spurt in its history. At the same time, America has sustained greater economic growth than any civilization before it.

Is there a link?

While it's hard to prove that population growth spurs economic growth, experts say, the two often go hand in hand. That helps to explain why, by virtually any socioeconomic standard, most American workers are better off today than they were in 1967, the year the population reached 200 million.

The economy that boosted their earnings has also provided many more jobs, many of them in industries that didn't exist four decades ago.

So, the population rise has forced – or at least been accompanied by – dramatic change in the workplace.

Today's workers are less likely to build automobiles and more likely to stock shelves at Wal-Mart or spend their days in a cubicle peering at a computer screen. A far smaller share of workers belong to a union, and those who do often hold government jobs. The fastest-growing job types are computer design and support, systems analysis, desktop publishing, and healthcare.

The most significant change of all: the rise of women in the workforce.

When Billie Williamson joined the Ernst & Young accounting firm in Dallas 32 years ago, she was one of just four women in an office of 100 employees. There were no female partners or senior managers. Today, 40 percent of the firm's employees and 24 percent of its newest partners are women, and the retention rate for women is nearly equal to that of men.

Offices become family-friendly
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