The declining middle class and its jobs

If you're in a job that can be outsourced or automated, chances are your job isn't going to be around much longer


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The middle class is being displaced, and with it the jobs typically held and performed by labor. This trend is threatening the way of life for millions of Americans and could change the economic and social fabric of the United States.

There are two principal occurrences underway driving this phenomenon with no end in sight for either:

 • The migration of low- and mid-skilled jobs to developing countries with cheaper labor compensation

 • The automation or robosourcing of tasks formally completed by employees

If you're now in a job that can be outsourced or automated, start making plans immediately for an employment change, because chances are your job isn't going to be around much longer.

This is a good news/bad news story for business. As more relatively lower-skilled workers are finding themselves increasingly irrelevant, their former employers meanwhile are finding productivity does not suffer as a result. On the contrary, productivity is increasing. Outsourcing and robosourcing are growing in popularity among business owners because they increase productivity and decrease costs. Good deal for the bottom line … bad deal for labor. Take a look at the stock market. It booms while employment numbers generally lag.

Much of what has historically made the middle class possible has been the availability of mid-level jobs — those that require more skill and knowledge than menial tasks, but not the more sophisticated, analytical and critical decision-making work performed by well-educated executives.

Manufacturing is where many of these jobs used to be found. But the decline of U.S. manufacturing means the loss of mid-level blue collar work. Thankfully, there are still mid-level service sector jobs in health care, hospitality, retail, the trades and elsewhere. Unfortunately these jobs don’t often satisfy the middle class standard of living we have become used to. The jobs are hard to come by and many of them don’t pay very well.

No quick fixes

The labor movement is in trouble. The collective strength of labor, which in the 20th century helped assure decent middle class compensation and placed the worker in a position where he and she could share in the fruits of production, has been significantly weakened. These days unions only represent about 12 percent of the workforce, and the competition for fewer and fewer jobs is growing fiercer. Even government work is drying up. The guy with only a high school diploma is competing against cheap labor from overseas and robots here at home. This is not a solid negotiating position to be in for finding and retaining a good paying middle class job.

There are no quick fixes or easy answers for the middle class. Sure, aspiring to great-paying management and executive work can and should be a goal for many, but realistically that’s not for everyone. Sustaining a viable middle class will require availability of mid-skilled employment that can be achieved with mid-level education, say the equivalent of an associate or bachelor’s degree. This type of employment should also pay a salary between minimum wage and executive compensation.

What a critical mass of those jobs will be moving forward is unclear. But if we are to be more than a nation of haves and haves-nots in the 21st century, then we had better figure this one out soon.

Bill Ryan, founder of Ryan Career Services LLC, Concord, is a regular blogger on NHBR Network. He can be reached at 603-724-2289 or bill@ryancareerservices.com.


 

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