Who's Winning the Lost Decade? (and Which Jobs and Cities Are Losing?)

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Or: Why you should go to school, move to Houston, work in mining, and maybe all three, in that order.

615 mining.jpg

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The more we learn about the last ten years, the more it seems like not only a Lost Decade, but a Decade of Losses. Wages didn't stagnate. They fell. And they fell especially hard for men who worked in construction and other industries surrounding the epic whirlpool of the real estate industry.

A recent study found that median household income fell 3 percent during the recession. Even worse, it declined another 7 percent between June 2009 and June 2011. This topped off what the Hamilton Project found to be a 26 percent decline in the real earnings of working-age men between 1970 and today. Put another way: Men earning the same real wage as their 1970s counterparts are among the relative winners in this economy.

The big picture is important to keep in mind. But in a $14 trillion economy, wages don't all rise and fall in synch. Instead, different industries and cities tell different stories. Seattle's wages consistently outpace the economy. Detroit's wages don't. Mining wages have exploded in the last five years. Food service wages haven't.

To get a more granular sense of how wages have moved in the last five years, I consulted PayScale, a wage index that measures the change in "total cash compensation" of full-time private industry employees. I asked them for graphs showing how wage growth in 20 industries and 15 cities compare to the national average. They were kind enough to pull the data, which is featured in the galleries below.

How Wages Compare Across Industries


How Wages Compare Across Cities



Here's what these graphs tell you: They show you how wages have changed since 2006, the benchmark year when all wages = 100. If the line representing Dallas wages moves below the line for national wages, that means that Dallas wages aren't keeping pace with overall wage growth post-2006.

Here's what these graphs don't tell you: They don't show you what people typically make in Dallas, or mining, or health care. For example, just because legal salaries haven't kept pace with national growth since 2006 doesn't mean lawyers and other legal workers are making less than the median wage. It means, as a group, their already higher-than-average wages aren't growing as fast as the entire wage pool.

And here are three observations about these graphs for the road, although I'm sure there are many more to pull out of the data:

1) Look first the industries with wage rising faster than average. Mining. Architecture and design. Health care. Science. To me, these fall into two categories. Mining belongs in a category by itself, as rising wages stem from explosive international demand for energy and other commodities. The last three all require significant higher education and training. It would seem that the key to growing wages is (a) get lucky with an industry with high international demand or (b) stay in school.

2) You see these same trends in the city-by-city data. Houston is a topographical lucky duck. When energy prices are high, Houston flies. Recently, it's been flying. Same goes for cities with high education levels. Cities like Seattle and San Francisco, which were already among the highest wages in the country, continued to keep up with or blow by national wage trends through the recession.

3) Look at the industries with wages growth much slower than average. Construction. Food service. Sales and retail. Again, I see two categories. Construction belongs in its own bucket, since it ascended and collapsed on the real estate bubble. Food service, sales, and retail all require very little education. Indeed, most of these jobs can be had without a college education, which means you have a lot of workers competing for a few low-skill jobs. That keeps wages low, not merely over the last five years, but in the last 30 years.

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Derek Thompson is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he writes about economics, labor markets, and the entertainment business.

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