The Center for Economic and Policy Research, a liberal think tank, found the percentage of workers with "good jobs" -- earning at least $37,000 a year with benefits -- fell to 24.6 in 2010, from 27.4 in 1979. That's a drop-off of roughly half a million workers. And while low-paying and temp jobs have also been growing over that same time period, the number of temp jobs has exploded since the recession began in 2009. According to statistics provided by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the number of temp jobs have risen 50 percent over the past for years and now total 2.7 million.
"Hundreds of thousands of workers have a standard of living that's lower than what their parents had 30 years earlier," observes Chris Owens, the executive director for the National Employment Law Project.
As the CEPR report notes, workers of all ages and educational status are finding it harder to secure good, full-time positions with benefits. Three factors appear to be at play for why more Americans are stuck in crappy jobs:
1. Companies organize work around "projects." That means less hiring and a greater reliance on temp staff. The top companies of the Standard & Poor's 500 have doubled their profits since 2009. Yet while companies may be thriving, workers and their wages are stuck in a holding pattern. Unemployment has remained above 7.5 percent and salaries have been stagnant. Companies are upfront about getting ahead with less. "In good times, companies can just throw people at the problem," Peter Bauer, the CEO of Mimecast, a Massachusetts-based firm that helps other companies manage their email systems, recently told CNN Money. "But in lean times, you pay a lot more attention to efficiency." Since the firm opened its offices in Watertown, Mass., it has cut its sales department by a quarter, helping it save $2.7 million a year.
The consequences of all the belt-tightening for workers can be seen in the growth of freelance workers. The Freelancers' Union estimates that 1 in 3 U.S. workers, about 42 million, now work as "free agents," which means that their employers don't provide them with benefits or full pay.
2. New technology disrupts industries and makes jobs obsolete. In a highly cited study conducted last year by the Economist Intelligence Unit of 567 global executives, 60 percent told the EIU that their industry will "bear little resemblance in 2020 to how it looks today." The cause? Technological changes will make certain jobs obsolete and force separate occupations to merge into one profession. The executives expect convergence to occur in banking and telecommunications, for example. That development will force workers in those fields to adapt to a new line of work in order to stay afloat.
Why does this lead to "crappy" jobs? What happens is that employers are relying more on temp workers to complete assignments so as to better respond to the fast-changing market. After all, as machines take over or a market changes, it's easier to just shed temp staffers who are no longer needed. According to the EIU, those who work at legal document discovery or radiology analysis will soon be replaced by machines, so these workers will have to retrain for new lines of work. "More and more people will have to be entrepreneurs selling their skills to large organizations," is how one executive put it in the EIU study.
3. Higher education doesn't offer workers' protection. A college degree has long been held up as the pathway to ensure a steady career. But that's no longer the case. As the McKinsey & Co. consulting firm found in a study it put out in May, entitled "Voice of the Graduate," half of recent college grads said that they are working in jobs that don't require a college degree. That means hundreds of thousands of Americans have completed four-year degrees to work at cashier and wait-staff jobs that they could have gotten with a high school diploma.
The trend is surely the result of the financial crisis. But the hard times also can be traced to more fundamental changes to the American economy. As the McKinsey study (which was compiled in conjunction with the college textbook company Chegg, Inc.) puts it, today's jobs "increasingly require specialized skills that graduates are not acquiring to a sufficient degree." Indeed, students who opt for STEM -- science, technology, engineering and math -- majors are still faring just fine. Roughly 4 out of 5 STEM graduates say that their majors prepared them well for landing a job that they were content with.
Why do you think there are more Americans working crappy jobs? Share your answers below.
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