The U. S. is now over six years in a recovery from “the great recession”, a recovery that has been the most anemic since World War II. Labor force participation is the lowest in forty years, wage growth is slow to nonexistent, and the question of so-called income and wealth inequality is all the rage from the political left and populist demagogues. There are lots of good ideas about what to do about some of this which await a change in the occupant of the White House, but no one seems to have an answer for the biggest challenge of all, which was highlighted in a study released last month by Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce. The study tabulated job growth in 485 occupation groups sorted by the highest-, middle-, and lowest-earning thirds and measured which groups have had the most growth. The study found that the U. S. economy has added about one million more jobs since the end of the recession in occupations that rank in the top third and 800,000 more in the bottom third, while jobs in the middle third, including traditional blue-collar occupations, have collapsed, failing to recover the number of jobs lost during the recession.
Anthony Carnevale, an economist who led the Georgetown study, remarked that “It used to be recessions were pauses and people went back to the same job distribution, but that’s not true anymore. A lot of the jobs in the rearview mirror aren’t coming back.” These results confirm widespread anecdotal evidence that the middle of the U. S. labor market is hollowing out. This is the backbone of the country, the core of the middle class.
There are no real surprises here for those who closely monitor these trends and plenty of conversation about the culprits, from the impact of economic globalization to the failure of the public education system to the over-emphasis on “college for everyone” to the rapid advances in “job-killing” technology to the lack of training for improved career transition and others. As one who is heavily involved in public education, I have my preferred culprits, but the truth is that comprehensive political leadership on this issue is sorely lacking and I believe that it is the most critical political and policy issue facing the country. It represents the highest anxiety of the American people and the political party that has the comprehensive policy solution to this problem without involving more harmful intrusion from government can stay in power for at least twenty years.