Why Good Middle Class Jobs Are Vanishing, And They're Not Coming Back

middle-class jobless recovery

In the U.S., the economic recovery that started in June 2009 has been called the third straight "jobless recovery."

But that's a misnomer. The jobs came back after the first two.

Most recessions since World War II were followed by a surge in new jobs as consumers started spending again and companies hired to meet the new demand. In the months after recessions ended in 1991 and 2001, there was no familiar snap-back, but all the jobs had returned in less than three years.

But 42 months after the Great Recession ended, the U.S. has gained only 3.5 million, or 47 percent, of the 7.5 million jobs that were lost. The 17 countries that use the euro had 3.5 million fewer jobs last June than in December 2007.

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This has truly been a jobless recovery, and the lack of midpay jobs is almost entirely to blame.

Fifty percent of the U.S. jobs lost were in midpay industries, but Moody's Analytics, a research firm, says just 2 percent of the 3.5 million jobs gained are in that category. After the four previous recessions, at least 30 percent of jobs created - and as many as 46 percent - were in midpay industries.

Other studies that group jobs differently show a similar drop in middle-class work.

Some of the most startling studies have focused on midskill, midpay jobs that require tasks that follow well-defined procedures and are repeated throughout the day. Think travel agents, salespeople in stores, office assistants and back-office workers like benefits managers and payroll clerks, as well as machine operators and other factory jobs. An August 2012 paper by economists Henry Siu of the University of British Columbia and Nir Jaimovich of Duke University found these kinds of jobs comprise fewer than half of all jobs, yet accounted for nine of 10 of all losses in the Great Recession. And they have kept disappearing in the economic recovery.

Webb Wheel Products makes parts for truck brakes, which involves plenty of repetitive work. Its newest employee is the Doosan V550M, and it's a marvel. It can spin a 130-pound brake drum like a child's top, smooth its metal surface, then drill holes - all without missing a beat. And it doesn't take vacations or "complain about anything," says Dwayne Ricketts, president of the Cullman, Ala., company.

Thanks to computerized machines, Webb Wheel hasn't added a factory worker in three years, though it's making 300,000 more drums annually, a 25 percent increase.

"Everyone is waiting for the unemployment rate to drop, but I don't know if it will much," Ricketts says. "Companies in the recession learned to be more efficient, and they're not going to go back."

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In Europe, companies couldn't go back even if they wanted to. The 17 countries that use the euro slipped into another recession 14 months ago, in November 2011. The current unemployment rate is a record 11.8 percent.

European companies had been using technology to replace midpay workers for years, and now that has accelerated.

"The recessions have amplified the trend," says Goos, the Belgian economist. "New jobs are being created, but not the middle-pay ones."

In Canada, a 2011 study by economists at the University of British Columbia and York University in Toronto found a similar pattern of middle-class losses, though they were working with older data. In the 15 years through 2006, the share of total jobs held by many midpay, midskill occupations shrank. The share held by foremen fell 37 percent, workers in administrative and senior clerical roles fell 18 percent and those in sales and service fell 12 percent.

In Japan, a 2009 report from Hitotsubashi University in Tokyo documented a "substantial" drop in midpay, midskill jobs in the five years through 2005, and linked it to technology.

Developing economies have been spared the technological onslaught - for now. Countries like Brazil and China are still growing middle-class jobs because they're shifting from export-driven to consumer-based economies. But even they are beginning to use more machines in manufacturing. The cheap labor they relied on to make goods from apparel to electronics is no longer so cheap as their living standards rise.


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