The American economy is irrevocably shifting from manufacturing to services. Our workforce has gone from 28 percent factory workers and 72 percent service workers in 1978 to 14 percent factory workers and 86 percent service workers today.
But the service sector encompasses tens of millions of “bad” jobs that are unstable and offer low pay with few benefits – routine clerical work, for example, or retail sales, fast food or low-end human services such as nurse’s aides – alongside a relatively small number of well-compensated professional positions, including doctors, lawyers and scientists, as well as astronomically rich investors and plutocrats in the financial sector.
As we move into this service economy, there are political choices to be made – or evaded. We can allow our increasingly laissez-faire economy to take a low road of underpaid and under-professionalized service jobs. Or we can use social investment, taxation and public borrowing to create more high-level careers in the human services, which will, in turn, help stimulate an economic recovery and stem the tide of inequality.
Millions of jobs serving the very young, the very old and the very sick are now low-wage positions. This is a social decision, however, not the product of private supply-and-demand. For the qualifications and earnings for these occupations are determined by prevailing mores as much as by labor markets.
A person caring for 3-year-olds, for example, can be a glorified baby sitter with minimum certification as a day-care worker ‑ or a well-trained professional in child development. So the job can pay minimum wage, or it can be a middle-class occupation and career.