Find a jobThe U.S. workforce is substantially older and better-educated than it was at the end of the 1970s, but "good" jobs have become harder and harder to find.
Share of Workers above Good-jobs Earnings Threshold, by Gender, 1979-2010Earnings trends differ strongly by gender. The share of men at or above the earnings cutoff declined from 57.4 percent in 1979 to 54.6 percent in 2010. At the same time the share of women clearing the earnings threshold more than doubled, from 16.6 percent in 1979 to 38.7 percent in 2010. As a result, the gender earnings gap, by this measure, fell sharply. In 1979, men were 40.9 percentage points more likely than women to earn at least $18.50 per hour; by 2010, the gap had fallen to 15.9 percentage points.
Share of Workers with Employer-provided Health Insurance, by Gender, 1979-2010Even without taking into account the quality of plans offered, employer-provided coverage has sharply decreased. Between 1979 and 2010, the share of workers with coverage fell 16.4 percentage points for men, 12.9 percentage points for all workers, and 7.3 percentage points for women. This trend persisted through the Great Recession.
Share of Workers with Employer-sponsored Retirement Plan, by Gender, 1979-2010The portion of the workforce with a plan has zigzagged over the last three decades. Retirement coverage fell sharply through most of the 1980s as employers dropped traditional pensions. Coverage then increased through the 1990s, as employers began to offer lower-cost defined-contribution plans instead of traditional pensions. The economic downturn in the early 2000s, which was accompanied by a steep decline in stock prices, however, seems to have set off a second wave of declines in retirement-plan participation. By 2010, the share of workers participating in a retirement plan at work was 7 percentage points lower than it had been in 1979. An interesting additional development is that – since the early 2000s – women have been more likely than men to participate in a retirement plan, a substantial reversal of the pattern in the 1980s and 1990s.
Share of Workers with Good Jobs, 1979-2010In 2010, 24.6 percent of all jobs met the good-jobs standard, down from 27.4 percent in 1979. Over the last three decades, the share of good jobs in the economy fell 2.8 percentage points, despite substantial increases in the quality of the workforce and a 63 percent increase in GDP per person.
Share of Workers with Good Jobs, by Gender, 1979-2010For women, the share in good jobs has grown almost continuously, from 12.4 percent in 1979 to 21.1 percent in 2010. Over the same period, the share of men in good jobs fell almost 10 percentage points, from 37.4 percent in 1979 to 27.7 percent in 2010. Over the entire period, women were less likely than men were to be in a good job, but the gender gap shrank steadily as the labor-market prospects for women generally improved.
Increases in Educational Attainment of the Workforce, 1979-2010In 1979, almost 20 percent of the workforce had less than a high school degree, but, by 2010, that share had dropped to just 7 percent. In 1979, about 20 percent of workers had a four-year college degree or more; by 2010, the share had increased to 34 percent. Over the same period, the workforce also aged considerably.
Increases in Age of the Workforce, 1979-2010In 1979, almost half of workers (47.4 percent) were between 18 and 34 years old. By 2010, the share in this age range had fallen to one-third (33.4 percent). Over the same period, the share of workers in the 35 to 54 year-old range increased from just under 40 percent to almost 50 percent; and the share of workers just below retirement age – 55 to 64 – grew from about 13 percent to almost 18 percent of all workers. These demographic shifts combined to raise the median age of the workforce 7 years. As a result of these developments, by 2010, the typical worker was substantially older and much better educated than in 1979.
Good Jobs, by Education, 1979-2010In 2010, only 3.9 percent of workers with less than a high school degree were in a good job, compared to 18.2 percent in 1979; among high school graduates, 14.7 percent were in good jobs in 2010, compared to 24.4 percent in 1979; and for those with a four-year college degree or more, 40.5 percent were in good jobs in the most recent data, down from 43.2 percent at the end of the 1970s. The decline in the good-jobs rate for workers with a four-year college degree or more is especially striking because the share of the workforce with an advanced degree (M.A., J.D., M.D., Ph.D. or similar) increased from 6.5 percent in 1979 to 11.8 percent in 2010.
Good Jobs, by Age Groups, 1979-2010Workers at every age level were also less likely to have a good job in 2010 than they were in 1979.For 18-to-34 year olds, only 15 percent of workers had a good job in 2010, down from almost 20 percent in 1979. For 35-to-54 year olds, the 2010 rate was 29 percent, compared to 35 percent in 1979. For 55-to-64 year olds, the share fell to 31 percent in 2010 from 33 percent in 1979. Even as the workforce grew older and better educated, the economy became less and less able to provide workers at every age and education level with a good job.
The U.S. workforce is substantially older and better-educated than it was at the end of the 1970s. The typical worker in 2010 was seven years older than in 1979 and over one-third of them had a four-year college degree or more, up from just one-fifth in 1979.
However, the U.S. economy has not managed to translate this substantial upgrading in the quality of the workforce into a similar increase in overall job quality.
Logic might dictate that better-educated workers would generally receive higher pay and better benefits, and that the share of "good jobs" in the economy would have increased in line with improvements in the quality of workforce.
Sadly, the share of "good jobs" in the U.S. economy has actually fallen, according to a new report from the Center for Economic and Policy Research. Over the past 30 years, the U.S. economy has lost about one-third of its capacity to generate good jobs.
The authors, John Schmitt, a senior economist at CEPR, and Janelle Jones, a research assistant, defines a "good job" as one that pays at least $18.50 an hour, has employer-provided health insurance, and an employer-sponsored retirement plan. The $18.50 per hour figure (which translates to about $37,000 per year on a full-time basis) is equal to the inflation-adjusted earnings of the typical male worker in 1979, the first year of data analyzed in the report.
By this definition, less than one-fourth of the workforce in 2010 (the most recent year for which data are available) had a "good job." That's down from 27.4 percent in 1979.
"The standard explanation for this loss of the economy's ability to create good jobs is that most workers skills have not kept up with the pace of technological change," Schmitt said. "But, it is hard to reconcile that view with the fact that even workers with a college degree are less likely to have a good job now than at the end of the 1970s."
The authors suggest, instead, that the decline in the economy's ability to produce good jobs relates to a deterioration of the bargaining power of workers, especially those at the middle and the bottom of the income scale.
According to the authors, the main cause of the loss of bargaining power is the large-scale restructuring of the labor market that began at the end of the 1970s and continues to the present.
The share of private-sector workers who are unionized has fallen from 23 percent in 1979 to less than 8 percent today. Meanwhile, the inflation-adjusted value of the minimum wage today is 15 percent below what it was in 1979.
Expectations for landing a "good" job have been dropping, given that 12.7 million Americans are still unemployed, while another 2.5 million are no longer counted in the workforce.