What we know about income inequaliy: America’s disappearing ‘middle-skill’ jobs and falling wages
There are a lot of things that “explain” inequality. Technology, finance, societal, and cultural changes have all played their part. In this series, Counterparties takes a look at the various things that correlate with rising income inequality in order to ascertain how we got to this economy and where we might go from here. For story tips/comments/complaints email us atCounterparties.Reuters@gmail.com.
America is losing middle class jobs — and middle class pay. Not only are “middle-skill” jobs disappearing as routine tasks become computerized (think everything people do in the television show “The Office”), but that job loss has contributed to stagnating wages, according to a recent paper by Michael Boehm of the University of Bonn.
This chart shows the changes in US employment shares by type of occupation since the end of the 1980s. The paper used two different measures, the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth (NLSY) and the comparable years and age group in the more standard Current Population Survey (CPS):
For this chart, the high-skill occupations comprise managerial, professional services, and technical occupations; middle-skill occupations are things like sales, office/administrative, and production occupations; and low-skill occupations include food, cleaning, and personal service occupations.
What Boehm found is that this erosion of middle-skill jobs is correlated with a similar erosion of middle-skill pay. This chart shows how wages were expected to grow back in 1980 (blue line), and how wages actually grew (red line):
Here’s what Boehm says this mean:
What emerges unambiguously from my work is that routinisation has not only replaced middle-skill workers’ jobs but also strongly decreased their relative wages. Policymakers who intend to counteract these developments may want to consider the supply side: if there are investments in education and training that help low and middle earners to catch up with high earners in terms of skills, this will also slow down or even reverse the increasing divergence of wages between those groups.
Previously in this series: