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What Are the Differences between Primary and Secondary Sectors?

M. McGee
M. McGee

The primary and secondary sectors of an economy refer to the way industry uses resources to generate income. In the primary sector, natural resources are harvested directly from the earth. This sector would contain everything from farmers to coal miners to lumberjacks. The secondary sector uses the materials from the primary sector, along with wholly man-made materials, to produce finished products; this sector contains most manufacturing and construction businesses. In addition to these sectors, there are economic sectors that deal with everything from the service industry to stay-at-home parents.

Economists often divide a country’s economy into sectors that each contain a specific grouping of jobs. The primary and secondary sectors are generally the most well-known, as they are typically indicators of the nation’s overall economic health. The sector’s classification is based on their reliance on natural resources to exist. The first two either require natural resources or directly use natural resources.

Coal miners belong to the primary sector.
Coal miners belong to the primary sector.

In most countries, these sectors make up the largest portion of the economy. They generate the most income and contribute the most to the economic stability of the country. Oddly enough, in many developed countries, the largest population works in the tertiary sector, the service industry. This section contains the businesses that provide benefits to other people, but do not directly create a product; this can be anything from a banker to a gas station attendant. This group doesn’t use natural resources at all, but may work in an industry that needs natural resources to continue.

These three sectors make up the common viewpoint of the economic system. The primary and secondary sectors are the processors and creators, while the tertiary sector interacts. Some newer economic models also contain a quaternary and quinary sector. These sectors bring in portions of the population that do not have a direct economic impact, but help move the economy forward.

The quaternary sector contains the industries that don’t generate products, may not generate income and don’t provide a service. These industries are often administrative, governmental or research-based. While these industries may be intermixed with industries from other sectors, they maintain a separate identity. The quinary sector contains people who are outside of established industry, but still use the economy. These people are without jobs, but have money, either because they are retired, rich or have a spouse who works.

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Discussion Comments


@indemnifyme - Service workers do play an important role in our economy. I find the quinary sector to be the most interesting though.

Most people discount the purchasing power of people like stay at home moms, and I think this is just sheer folly. Even though stay at home moms don't participate in the economy directly by working, they are still a force to be reckoned with.

My mom was a stay at home mom when I was growing up. Even though she didn't make the money, she sure decided how we were going to spend it. She did all the grocery shopping and took care of major household purchases. She also planned all of our vacations. I think all this stuff definitely has an impact on the economy.


I'm not surprised that a lot of people work in the tertiary sector doing service jobs. When I consider all the things I do in my day to day life, service workers are necessary for almost all of them.

For example, today I went grocery shopping. A service worker rang up my items for me. Then I went to the bank. A service worker assisted me. After that, I stopped somewhere to grab a quick lunch. My dollars are flowing into the economy, and that wouldn't be possible without all those service workers. Very interesting, when you think about it.

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    • Coal miners belong to the primary sector.
      By: Kovalenko Inna
      Coal miners belong to the primary sector.