What Would It Take to Have an Economy Full of Good Jobs Again?

Politicians talk about growing the middle class as though it's easy. But it’s going to require admitting some uncomfortable truths.

Lucas Jackson / Reuters

Looking back a few generations to the postwar era, there was what could be described as a golden age of work for many Americans. This was a time when homeownership was on the rise, unemployment was low, and the middle class grew. Back then, many workers remained with one company for the duration of their careers, and could count on retirement benefits that allowed them to live comfortably beyond them.

This golden age was limited in its reach. It was the result of an artificially constrained labor market, in which the best jobs were preserved for white men, and people of color and white women were frequently excluded from high-status, high-paying occupations. As George Lipsitz describes in his excellent book How Racism Takes Place, the racial and gender divisions of the labor force were simultaneously buttressed by government policies that maintained residential segregation—the effects of which persist to the present day.

In more recent years, however, work has changed substantially. People rarely spend their entire career at one company; switching jobs is much more commonplace, even expected. Organizations are often less hierarchical. Many employees now work on short-term projects as contractors, in arrangements that can offer them flexibility, but do not include benefits such as health, dental, or life insurance, not to mention employer-subsidized retirement plans. The sociologist Arne Kalleberg argues that, increasingly, the occupational opportunities out there consist primarily of “bad jobs”—those that offer few benefits, low wages, and preclude the sort of economic stability that employment provided in previous generations. Put another way, the subpar jobs and wages that before the civil-rights movement were typically restricted to black Americans have become more common for everyone else now.

This shift came about for a number of reasons. The sociologist Jake Rosenfeld’s research documents how the decline of unionization has, among other things, exacerbated racial wage gaps that had been starting to close as the civil-rights movement removed some legal barriers separating minorities and good jobs. Don Tomaskovic-Devey and Ken-Hou Lin show how the rise of America’s financial sector has worsened economic inequality. At the same time, tight regulation of corporations and policies, such as affirmative action, that are intended to address discrimination have become less popular politically.

These macro-level shifts have had a marked impact on individual workers’ lives. The rise of contract, at-will work leaves many with tenuous job security. Workers in low-wage retail occupations, for instance—one example of the “bad jobs” Kalleberg references—can also find themselves subject to irregular hours and wage theft, making it extremely difficult to support themselves and families in these jobs. The decline of unionization (and the absence of labor protections in many states) contributes to workers’ lack of power relative to previous years.

These developments affect many workers, but they have particularly precarious consequences for women of all races and minority men. The sociologist Joan Acker notes that even as the last few decades have seen an influx of women of all races into the workforce, women remain overrepresented in those “bad” jobs. Christine Williams, Chandra Muller, and Kristine Kilanski’s research on female scientists suggests that even women working “good” jobs are still subjected to discrimination and professional isolation. Nancy Fraser, another academic who questions the fairness of today’s labor markets, laments the type of “lean in” feminism that emphasizes individual advancement and necessitates leaning on other women, particularly those who are minorities or relatively poor.

People of color in particular suffer under this new economy. Since the start of the recession, the unemployment rate among black Americans has often been at least double the unemployment rate of the larger population. Sociologists such as Deirdre Royster have shown that contrary to some popular opinions, this is the case not because black workers are any lazier or less willing to work, but because white workers reserve information and job leads for other white workers and exclude qualified, capable black workers from important social networks.

Moreover, black people are much less likely than white people to be able to draw on liquid assets that can sustain families during economic downturns. Again, in contrast to stereotypes that suggest this is the result of conspicuous consumption or frivolous spending, research by Melvin Oliver and Thomas Shapiro indicates that this is a consequence of a past in which blacks faced nearly insurmountable obstacles to amassing wealth—slavery and segregation, to name two—while whites have been able to build fortunes without such limits and then bequeath them. This is compounded by the fact that today, widespread residential segregation leaves many black homeowners with far fewer assets than their white counterparts.

So what does this mean for politicians promising to “fix” the economy and “grow the middle class?” For those things to actually happen, it might mean acknowledging politically uncomfortable truths: that as unions have declined in scope and power, so too have workers’ wages; that the financial sector’s surge may have benefited large companies but is also is associated with widening inequality; and that more and more Americans have little choice but to work unstable, low-wage, “bad” jobs. Beyond that, it would also mean acknowledging that these disappointing trends have hurt women of all races and men of color more than white men. It’d take a slew of new policies, but it is possible to give all workers the prosperity of the postwar era—not just the white ones.