A hallmark of the U.S. economy’s record expansion has been steady growth in employment. Judging from the jobless rate, in fact, the labor market is the best it’s been in half a century. But what is missing in the focus on the numbers is a severe and troubling deterioration in the quality of jobs created.

A close look at labor trends in recent decades reveals that while the U.S. jobs market has expanded, the caliber of the positions created in the largest chunk of the workforce has steadily and significantly declined, leaving Americans working fewer hours on average, and in lower-paying positions. These changes to what we call job quality as distinguished from quantity — which largely align with the growth in the service economy at the expense of manufacturing — account for much that now ails the American economy and, as a consequence, society more broadly. 

Until now, good metrics  for tracking this aspect of U.S. employment have been lacking. And so we at Cornell University — alongside a team drawn from the University of Missouri Kansas City, the Coalition for a Prosperous America, and the Global Institute for Sustainable Prosperity — developed a new index for assessing the underlying health of the jobs market. The Cornell-CPA U.S. Private Sector Job Quality Index tracks the ratio of high-wage/high-hours jobs to low-wage/low-hours jobs on a monthly basis, going back to 1990 (the earliest date for which comprehensive data is available). We use weekly income as our measure of quality because what matters to employees, their families, and our broader economy is what workers take home from their jobs every week, not just what they earn every hour over the fewer hours they work.

What does the index show? Since 1990, the index has steadily fallen. It has done so by as much as 16.1% at the nadir of the financial crisis and lingers to this day at 14.4% below 1990. Much of this decline stems from a change in the mix of available jobs in America, but much also stems from the reduction in the number of hours of work available on jobs in many sectors. Unpacking both of these phenomena – changes in what people do on the job and changes in how many hours of work their jobs afford them – is instructive.

The most prominent change to the U.S. private sector job situation in recent decades is the dramatic loss of goods-producing jobs – something that most Americans are at least intuitively aware of. Back in the 1960s, 42% of  private-sector production and non-supervisory jobs (the largest part of the labor market) involved manufacturing, construction, or mining and logging – in short, making things. Today, that figure stands at a mere 17% of these P&NS positions.

As our “making” economy miniaturized, our service economy grew as a percentage of overall jobs. This occurred steadily all the way until the Great Recession of 2007-2009, when something unprecedented happened: service jobs plateaued at around 83% of all P&NS jobs. Essentially, the U.S. hit “peak service” – the maximum share of jobs that the service economy could provide, given the obvious necessity that at least some jobs remain in the domestic goods-producing sectors. But we haven’t reached quality’s nadir – for within the services sector, job quality still is declining.

Increasingly, a greater share of job gains are occurring within the lowest quality job subsectors – in particular retail, leisure and hospitality, administrative, waste management, and health-care and social assistance services. While not all the positions in these subsectors are low quality, both the average job and the vast majority of the positions in these subsectors offer less than the mean weekly income of all U.S. P&NS jobs. In fact, the percentage of P&NS jobs created in just these four subsectors corresponds almost exactly to the percentage of goods-producing jobs lost in America from 1990 through today. We have, in other words, replaced most of our highest quality jobs not merely with lower quality jobs, but with lowest quality jobs.

One particularly telling comparison is emblematic of the change: In 1990, with 80 million fewer people than today, the U.S. had 12.7 million manufacturing jobs (not including construction and natural resources) and 5.9 million jobs in eating and drinking establishments. Today, with a population one-third larger than in 1990, the country has only 9 million manufacturing jobs and 10.7 million jobs preparing and serving food and beverages. The average weekly income yielded by these jobs is $373, compared to $922 for manufacturing.

Taken together, the large and still growing number of low-quality jobs offer an average of only 30  hours of work a week, while the dwindling number of high-quality jobs offer an average of 38.3 hours of work per week. It is worth thinking about what this implies in the aggregate: Were all current low-quality jobs offering the same number of hours per week as high-quality jobs, it would be the equivalent of creating 12.6 million new jobs (11% of the existing P&NS jobs base).

In other words, headline unemployment might be low, but effective under-employment of Americans, measured by the quality of their jobs in the private sector, is rampant and still worsening. U.S. labor is in this sense being devalued via systemic underutilization. And, unsurprisingly, this devaluation has fallen hardest on the holders of low-quality jobs – now the majority cohort. If you wonder where flagging effective demand, growing private-sector debt, and still worsening inequality and populist outrage are coming from, you need look no further.

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