Editor’s Note: This piece was originally published on Economix. Copyright 2012, The New York Times.
Job creation has rightly been the central economic issue of the last three years as the United States continues its recovery. But the problems with the job market are not entirely recent. The downturn also exacerbated longer-term challenges in the labor market that are driven by a variety of factors, including technological change, international trade and the decline of unions. Many of these forces have been around since the 19th century, but today, for what may be the first time in American history, we are failing to invest enough in our skills and productivity to stay ahead of these trends, and the impacts of this failure are reflected in the declining wages of many American workers.
Because the role of women in the labor force has changed strikingly over the last 40 years, the problem is most evident in trends in male earnings. And, in fact, there has been a lot of talk about the stagnating wages of American male workers. Using conventional methods of analysis, the data show that the median earnings for prime-age (25-64) working men have declined slightly from 1970 to 2010, falling by 4 percent after adjusting for inflation.
This finding of stagnant wages is unsettling, but also quite misleading. For one thing, this statistic includes only men who have jobs. In 1970, 94 percent of prime-age men worked, but by 2010, that number was only 81 percent. The decline in employment has been accompanied by increases in incarceration rates, higher rates of enrollment in the Social Security Disability Insurance program and more Americans struggling to find work. Because those without jobs are excluded from conventional analyses of Americans’ earnings, the statistics we most commonly see — those that illustrate a trend of wage stagnation — present an overly optimistic picture of the middle class.
When we consider all working-age men, including those who are not working, the real earnings of the median male have actually declined by 19 percent since 1970. This means that the median man in 2010 earned as much as the median man did in 1964 — nearly a half century ago. Men with less education face an even bleaker picture; earnings for the median man with a high school diploma and no further schooling fell by 41 percent from 1970 to 2010.
Women have fared much better over these 40 years, but they started from a lower level, and the same problems faced by their male counterparts are beginning to have an effect. Since 1970, the earnings of the median female worker have increased by 71 percent, and the share of women 25 to 64 who are employed has risen to 71 percent, from 54 percent. But after making significant wage gains over several decades, that progress has slowed and even reversed recently. Since 2000, the earnings of the median woman have fallen by 6 percent.
Though these trends in earnings for American workers — men and women alike — are troubling and have many causes, the data do present some clear guidance for policy makers. Among the most robust findings in economics is that education reduces unemployment and increases earnings. But even with the remarkable capacity for education to produce growth, the rate of educational attainment in the United States has slowed, especially for men. The share of men 25 to 34 with a college degree, for example, has barely increased over the last 30 years. (The trends are much better for women.) The United States, once the world leader in educational attainment, has been surpassed by many countries.
Strengthening our K-12 education system and increasing college-completion rates are, therefore, imperative to improving living standards for future generations. It is also clear that changes in the global economy that generate vast opportunities for the American economy have created difficulties for many Americans; the continued pursuit of pro-growth policies will require the identification of policies that help these workers to remain active participants in the economy. These are difficult tasks, but the last four decades demonstrate that the stakes are high. Our children’s living standards are at risk, and with them the American Dream that each generation can do better than the previous one.