Not your father’s middle class

The Upshot section of the New Year Times published a terrific infographic and article on today’s middle class jobs compared to those in 1980. Those that pay between $40,000 and $80,000. Both are highly recommended, especially the infographic.

The bottom line is clear: today’s middle class is no longer centered in manufacturing or construction as it was in the 1980s and most of the 20th Century. Today health care is at the center of middle class jobs.

The Times calculates the change per 1000 of middle class workers from 1980-2014. The three occupational categories with the steepest declines? Machine operators and assemblers; skilled production workers; and construction and agriculture workers. The first two, of course, are manufacturing workers. The three occupational categories with the largest gains? Professionals and specialists; managers and administrators; and service workers and sales people. The first two categories––professionals and mangers––are occupations where those with four year degrees or more are concentrated. (Although its not the Time’s topic, these are also the occupations where those who make more than $80,000 are concentrated.)

The infographic contains lists of gains and losses by occupation. If you want to understand today’s American economy take the time to go through the lists. The occupation with the largest gains? Registered nurses. The occupation with the largest decline? Machine operators.

The Times summarizes the data this way:

Most of the new jobs produced by America’s sprawling economy — especially since the turn of the century — are either in highly paid occupations that often require an advanced degree, or, more predominantly, in lower-paid positions providing direct services that cannot be sent overseas and, at least for now, are difficult to automate.

But even with a hollowing out of the job market and a broad stagnation in wages, an analysis by The New York Times has found, a set of occupations has emerged that holds promise as the base of a more robust middle class. Many are in health care, which has grown sharply over the last few decades.

Economists at the Labor Department project that by 2022, as baby boomers age, health care and social assistance will absorb nearly 20 percent of consumer spending, double the share of manufactured goods. The sector is expected to support over 21 million jobs, five million more than today. This includes half a million more registered nurses.

… In 1980, 1.4 million jobs in health care paid a middle-class wage: $40,000 to $80,000 a year in today’s money. Now, the figure is 4.5 million.

The pay of registered nurses — now the third-largest middle-income occupation and one that continues to be overwhelmingly female — has risen strongly along with the increasing demands of the job. The median salary of $61,000 a year in 2012 was 55 percent greater, adjusted for inflation, than it was three decades earlier.

And it was about $9,000 more than the shriveled wages of, say, a phone company repairman, who would have been more likely to head a middle-class family in the 1980s. Back then, more than a quarter of middle-income jobs were in manufacturing, a sector long dominated by men. Today, it is just 13 percent.

The lesson we need to learn is that good paying 21st Century occupations are different from those in the 20th Century. Globalization and technology are driving increasing demand for workers in service sectors and driving demand down for workers in goods producing industries (manufacturing, construction and agriculture).

Unfortunately far too many of Michigan’s political, business and media leadership have not learned that lesson.  Governing Snyder has stated his economic growth priority this way: “Number one would be career tech education for the skilled trades. If you look at it, people know about (becoming a) welder, plumber and electrician. Those are great careers. But now the skilled trades really define most people in manufacturing and agriculture in terms of needing additional training.” Pushing schools to steer our kids towards skilled trades in manufacturing and construction runs counter to the trends/reality of today’s and tomorrow’s economy.

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Lou Glazer

Lou Glazer is President and co-founder of Michigan Future, Inc., a non-partisan, non-profit organization. Michigan Future’s mission is to be a source of new ideas on how Michigan can succeed as a world class community in a knowledge-driven economy. Its work is funded by Michigan foundations.

This Post Has One Comment

  1. You and I both agree that helping more young people to obtain a 4 year college degree or better is important and that most of the best jobs in the future will require such a degree. However, do you think a student’s major or area of study is important? Is a general liberal arts major still as valuable a specialized degree in nursing, computer programming or accounting? I know in past, companies would hire students with a general liberal arts degree, and then train them for a specific job or career. It seems like employers are now wanting students with specific technical skills who can be productive right away. Do you think students need to have a specific job-related major or in a STEM related major? Or do you think a general liberal arts related major is sufficient? I ask this because I read a lot about students graduating from college with majors that are not career related, and then cannot find a job. The know some of the careers shown as rapidly growing in the article (such as nursing and accounting) require majors in those specific subjects.

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