AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
In recent years, the prospects of many people have improved as the U.S. unemployment rate slipped down to just over 5 percent. But recent studies show most jobs are going to workers either in the top third or bottom third of income. From member station WSHU, Charles Lane looks at those in the middle who are getting squeezed in the job market, especially men.
CHARLES LANE, BYLINE: Economists call them middle-skilled workers. They have good jobs that don't necessarily require specialized training or a college education. Think file clerk, legal assistant or production baker.
ELLESWORTH ASHMAN: You mix the dough. You mix the topping that goes on the cake.
LANE: Ellesworth Ashman is one of those middle-skilled workers. He's put in 23 years at Entenmannâs, a company that has been baking sweets here on Long Island for more than 90 years.
ASHMAN: This place, during my time, we were making over a million cake a week.
LANE: Ashman's job required some skill, but it was routine. And those are the jobs that are disappearing. Entenmann's eliminated Ashman's job last year, leaving him with a tough choice - go back to school and get a higher-skill job or get a low-skill job to pay the bills.
ASHMAN: Just recently, I start working with assisted living place. I keep everything up to par in terms of cleaning and dusting.
LANE: This job pays half his Entenmannâs job.
ASHMAN: But I'm a man, and you got to do what you got to do.
LANE: Ashman's word choice nails it. As middle-skill jobs disappear, researchers say men and women go in two different directions - men down, women up. For example, Maribel Moran used to be a receptionist at several law firms.
MARIBEL MORAN: After a while, it just got very boring and, like, routine. And I just felt stuck, and I felt like I plateaued there, so...
LANE: She decided to go back to school for a bachelor's degree, and at a job fair in New York City, she was looking for something better.
MORAN: Most men, I think, are used to their routine and what they know already, so to go into something new is a little tougher with most men.
LANE: Labor economists can't exactly explain this gender divide. What they do know is women are better educated than men. David Autor is an economist at MIT. He says this baseline education prepares women to survive the disappearing middle, but...
DAVID AUTOR: Even holding education constant, we see less-educated men faring worse than less-educated women. They're moving more into low-skill occupations, and they just check out.
LANE: Statistics show labor participation for prime-age males has been falling for a long time, and it drops faster with each recession. Autor says the ramifications are profound - greater income inequality, for one - also lower marriage rates, which creates what Autor calls an intergenerational feedback loop.
AUTOR: Boys do worse than girls in that setting, and so that sets them up again to be less likely to complete high school, to attend college, more likely to be incarcerated and, in general, have lower earnings.
LANE: The long-term solution is, of course, education, but the short-term is tougher. Lawrence Katz is a professor of economics at Harvard. He says one solution is to subsidize low-skill wages, but Congress has been reluctant to do that.
LAWRENCE KATZ: The earned income tax credit has been very effective at that, but its real value hasn't really increased in 20 years.
LANE: But Katz cautions economies have always lost jobs, and workers have always adapted. To survive the disappearing middle, he says, workers need to customize current services or invent jobs that computers can't do. Though, some researchers see computers getting better and soon replacing what we now consider high-skill jobs. For NPR News, I'm Charles Lane.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.