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A Mess On The Ladder Of Success

circa 1940: American Legion roof spotter Benjamin Franklin enjoys the New York Skyline. (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images) i i
Keystone/Getty Images
circa 1940: American Legion roof spotter Benjamin Franklin enjoys the New York Skyline. (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)
Keystone/Getty Images

Below is Adam Davidson's latest New York Times Magazine column, "A Mess On The Ladder Of Success." Read all of Davidson's Times Magazine columns here.

Throughout American history there has almost always been at least one central economic narrative that gave the ambitious or unsatisfied reason to pack up and seek their fortune elsewhere. For the first 300 or so years of European settlement, the story was about moving outward: getting immigrants to the continent and then to the frontier to clear the prairies, drain the swamps and build new cities.

By the end of the 19th century, as the frontier vanished, the U.S. had a mild panic attack. What would this vibrant, entrepreneurial country be without new lands to conquer? Some people (I'm looking at you, Teddy Roosevelt) decided to keep on conquering (Cuba, the Philippines, etc.), but eventually, in industrialization, the U.S. found a new narrative of economic mobility at home. From the 1890s to the 1960s, people moved from farm to city, first in the North and then in the South. In fact, by the 1950s, there was enough prosperity and white-collar work that many began to move to the suburbs. As the population aged, there was also a shift from the cold Rust Belt to the comforts of the Sun Belt. We think of this as an old person's migration, but it created many jobs for the young in construction and health care, not to mention tourism, retail and restaurants.

For the last 20 years — from the end of the cold war through two burst bubbles in a single decade — the U.S. has been casting about for its next economic narrative. And now it is experiencing another period of panic, which is bad news for much of the work force but particularly for its youngest members. The U.S. has always been a remarkably itinerant country, but new data from the Census Bureau indicate that mobility has reached its lowest level in recorded history. Sure, some people are stuck in homes valued at less than their mortgages, but many young people — who don't own homes and don't yet have families — are staying put, too. This suggests, among other things, that people aren't packing up for new economic opportunities the way they used to. Rather than dividing the country into the 1 percenters versus everyone else, the split in our economy is really between two other classes: the mobile and immobile.

Part of the problem is that the country's largest industries are in decline. In the past, it was perfectly clear where young people should go for work (Chicago in the 1870s, Detroit in the 1910s, Houston in the 1970s) and, more or less, what they'd be doing when they got there (killing steer, building cars, selling oil). And these industries were large enough to offer jobs to each class of worker, from unskilled laborer to manager or engineer. Today, the few bright spots in our economy are relatively small (though some promise future growth) and decentralized. There are great jobs in Silicon Valley, in the biotech research capitals of Boston and Raleigh-Durham and in advanced manufacturing plants along the southern I-85 corridor. These companies recruit all over the country and the globe for workers with specific abilities. (You don't need to be the next Mark Zuckerberg to get a job in one of the microhubs, by the way. But you will almost certainly need at least a B.A. in computer science or a year or two at a technical school.) This newer, select job market is national, and it offers members of the mobile class competitive salaries and higher bargaining power.

Many members of the immobile class, on the other hand, live in the America of the grim headlines. If you have no specialized skills, there's little reason to uproot to another state and be the last in line for a low-paying job at a new auto plant or a burgeoning green-energy cluster. The surprise in the census data, however, is that the immobile work force is not limited to unskilled workers. In fact, many have a college degree.

Until now, a B.A. in any subject was a near-guarantee of at least middle-class wages. But today, a quarter of college graduates make less than the typical worker without a bachelor's degree. David Autor, a prominent labor economist at M.I.T., recently told me that a college degree alone is no longer a guarantor of a good job. While graduates from top universities are still likely to get a good job no matter what their major is, he said, graduates from less-exalted schools are going to be judged on what they know. To compete for jobs on a national level, they should be armed with the skills that emerging industries need, whether technical (computer science) or not.

Those without such specialized skills — like poetry, or even history, majors — are already competing with their neighbors for the same sorts of mediocre, poorer-paying local jobs like low-level management or big-box retail sales. And with the low-skilled labor market atomized into thousands of microeconomies, immobile workers are less able to demand better wages or conditions or to acquire valuable skills.

So what, exactly, should the ambitious young worker of today be learning? Unfortunately, it's hard to say, since the U.S. doesn't have one clear national project. There are plenty of emerging, smaller industries, but which ones are the most promising? (Nanotechnology's moment of remarkable growth seems to have been 5 years into the future for something like 20 years now.) It's not clear exactly what skills are most needed or if they will even be valuable in a decade.

What is clear is that all sorts of government issues — education, health-insurance portability, worker retraining — are no longer just bonuses to already prosperous lives but existential requirements. It's in all of our interests to make sure that as many people as possible are able to move toward opportunity, and America's ability to hurl people and money at exciting new ideas is still greater than that of most other wealthy countries. (As recently as five years ago, U.S. migration was twice the rate of European Union states.) That, at least, is some comfort at a time when our national economy seems to be searching for its next story line.

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