Brick-and-mortar retail is having a meltdown, and economists are starting to see the effects in the job market.
Overall retail employment has fallen every month this year. Department stores, including Macy’s and JC Penney, have shed nearly 100,000 jobs since October—more than the total number of coal miners or steel workers currently employed in the U.S. Even America’s richest areas are getting hit: Employment in New York City clothing stores has fallen three years in a row, the longest period of decline on record, going back to the early 1990s.
When some industries lose workers, they win the consolation prize of empty political promises to turn back time. During the presidential campaign, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton went up and down Appalachia—and far beyond—to lament the job losses suffered by manufacturers and miners. The loss of these jobs has been devastating to many cities and towns. But department stores have lost 18 times more workers than coal mining since 2001.
So, how has the retail bloodletting been so much quieter than the decline in mining and manufacturing? There are several plausible explanations. First, mining and manufacturing jobs are geographically concentrated. Sixty percent of coal-mining jobs are in just four states: West Virginia, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, and Wyoming. Retail is spread more evenly across the country, so there are “mining towns,” which politicians can visit and photographers can capture and where the pain runs especially deep, in a way there are not “mall towns.” Second, as Slate Chief Political Correspondent Jamelle Bouie tweeted, the demographics of a job can determine its political salience. Coal mining is still 95 percent white and 95 percent male. Department store workers are 40 percent minority and just 40 percent male. The emphasis on work that is white, male, and burly may represent an implicit bias against the working class of the modern service economy, which is more diverse and female. Third, mining and manufacturing jobs feed into a national nostalgia for the mid-century economy, with its unionized workforce, economic growth, and high pay for men without much education.