The economy today differs from that of a generation ago. Mortgage and consumer loan underwriters have been replaced by credit scoring. Record stores have been replaced by music downloads. Book stores are closing, while sales of books on electronic readers have increased. Data entry has been moved off shore. Routine customer support also has been outsourced overseas.
These trends serve to limit the availability of well-defined jobs. If a job can be characterized by a precise set of instructions, then that job is a candidate to be automated or outsourced to modestly educated workers in developing countries.
The result is what David Autor calls the polarization of the American job market. Autor and various research collaborators have documented a number of findings that reflect this polarization:4
• In recent decades, wage and employment growth have both been lowest at the middle segment of the skill distribution. Wage improvements have tended to be concentrated at the high end, and employment gains have tended to be largest at the low end of the skill distribution.
• This particular symptom of polarization is also prevalent in OECD countries other than the United States.
• In the United States, this polarization was exacerbated by the economic downturn. While both high- and low-skill jobs have held steady, the brunt of the recession has been borne by mid-skill workers. For example, growth in employment in sales was 54 percent from 1979 to 1989, 14 percent from 1989 to 1999, 4 percent from 1999 to 2007, and -7 percent from 2007 to 2009. Employment in sales was a key component of upward economic mobility after World War II, but technological change and globalization appear to have stalled or perhaps reversed this engine of middle-class affluence.
• From 1980 to 2007, real wages for male workers with only a high school degree fell by 12 percent, real wages of male workers with only a college degree rose by 10 percent, and real wages of males with post-graduate degrees increased by 26 percent. Female workers show a similar pattern, although wage gains were generally higher for females over this period.
Using the latest Census Bureau data, Matthew Slaughter found that from 2000 to 2010 the real earnings of college graduates (with no advanced degree) fell by more in percentage terms than the earnings of high school graduates. In fact, over this period the only education category to show an increase in earnings was those with advanced degrees.5
The Great Depression of the 1930s can also be interpreted in part as an economic transition.
The outlook for mid-skill jobs would not appear to be bright.