The Labor Market's Missing Middle

January 23, 2019
People walking in a street
Photo: Unsplash/Ryoji Iwata

Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) labor economist David Autor recently explained why cities are no longer beacons of opportunity for middle-skilled workers.

While high-skilled jobs become more concentrated in cities and low-skilled service jobs grew outside of urban centers, mid-skilled positions like office work and manufacturing saw equalizing wages in both urban and rural areas, meaning that moving to work in the city isn't offering much of a pay increase to these workers. Fortune reports that the urban-rural education gap has widened as a result, creating a deep national social divide--rural Americans were 20 percent less likely to have a college degree than their urban counterparts in 2015, versus 5 percent in 1970.

In a recent lecture at the American Economic Association meeting in Atlanta, Autor attempted to weave many of those threads together into a single story. Paraphrasing heavily, that story goes something like this: Forty years ago, Americans who didn’t go to college could move to cities and get good jobs in manufacturing or office work. But starting in about 1980, these jobs began to disappear, thanks in part to offshoring and automation. By 2000, manufacturing was in steady retreat ...

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