Middle Class Jobs Gone Forever, But There’s Hope”

Fortune; November 28, 2011

Between 1980 and 2009, demand for high-skilled work­ers from engi­neers to archi­tects grew steadily. So did their wages. For instance, the median wage for jobs related to com­put­ers and math was roughly $49,000 in 1980 and it rose to $67,000 in 2009. Demand for lower-skilled work­ers from wait­resses to con­struc­tion work­ers also grew (and to some extent, so did their wages), leav­ing the mid­dle class floun­der­ing with few options and declin­ing or stag­nant pay.  So how bad off is the mid­dle class? The Fed offers a dis­tress­ing glimpse: In 1980, three quar­ters of all U.S. work­ers were employed in middle-skill jobs. By 2009, that fig­ure plunged to two-thirds. Whereas machine oper­a­tors accounted for 10% of the nation’s jobs more than three decades ago and admin­is­tra­tive jobs com­prised 18%, their shares spi­raled to about 4% and 14%, respec­tively, by 2009.  It’s not just a trend in the U.S., but also in many of the world’s advanced economies. And while it has been hap­pen­ing for more than three decades, middle-skill jobs suf­fered more than most oth­ers dur­ing the Great Recession.  Economists have offered sev­eral rea­sons explain­ing the trend, from the sophis­ti­ca­tion of machines that replace rou­tine work to inter­na­tional trade and off­shoring. Indeed, ris­ing demand for skilled work­ers seems almost irre­versible. But Massachusetts Institute of Technology econ­o­mist David Autor sug­gests that per­haps it’s not entirely out of our control.”


By Nin-Hai Tseng