Thomas Edsall is too kind in referring to it as a "Downward Ramp." It's more of a steep, steep slide.
Edsall's column in today's New York Times cites fresh evidence, corroborated by a 2010 study titled "Polarization of Job Opportunities in the U.S. Labor Market," showing that the availability of what were once considered "high-end" jobs for the "highly skilled" has been in a state of precipitous collapse since 2000.
With the bursting of the tech bubble at the start of the 21st century, two decades of growth at the high end of the job market — once the province of college graduates with strong cognitive abilities — came to an abrupt halt, according to detailed studies of employment and investment patterns by three Canadian economists. We are still feeling the ramifications.What happened? The promises of NAFTA turned out to be bogus, that's what. Foreign competition and automation, and often a combination of both, have led to the decline not only in highly skilled positions but perversely, in the jobs available to everyone not so "highly skilled."
Preliminary findings suggest that this trend is alarming in almost every respect. Just one example: the drying up of cognitively demanding jobs is having a cascade effect. College graduates are forced to take jobs beneath their level of educational training, moving into clerical and service positions instead of into finance and high tech.The study linked above was authored by David Autor, Department of Economics at MIT. Three other Canadian economists, Paul Buedry, David A. Green and Ben Sand, have recently authored two similar papers documenting the gradual disappearance of the types of employment opportunities we are constantly told are the key to advancement today--those requiring "high tech" skills.
This cascade eliminates opportunities for those without college degrees who would otherwise fill those service and clerical jobs. These displaced workers are then forced to take even less demanding, less well-paying jobs, in a process that pushes everyone down. At the bottom, the unskilled are pushed out of the job market altogether.
The dropoff in such opportunities is rather stark and would appear to fly directly in the face of those who tout a seemingly limitless capacity of opportunity to be had in "tech start ups" and the idyllic promise of the "Information Economy."
Beaudry, Green and Sand make the case that the technology bubble that burst in 2000 was far more significant than generally recognized. In their view, information technology underwent a period of revolutionary growth in the 1980s and 1990s, spurring a huge demand for well-educated workers to manage surging capital investments in computers, software and electronics.The studies contain a lot of graphs, most of which are sure to depress a potential "cognitive task worker," including one which shows a nearly "vertical drop" in the percentage of GNP that went to purchasing computers and peripheral equipment between 2000-2003. The authors point out that this evidences a trend that preceded the Great Recession.
At the turn of the 21st century, however, the I.T. revolution entered what the authors call a “maturity stage,” in which much of “the new capital is in place” and “cognitive task workers are only needed to maintain the new capital.”
Edsall queried Autor and Harvard Economist Lawrence Katz about what these trends mean. Both somewhat laconically confirmed the analysis as "credible and disturbing:"
Autor described the displacement of lesser skilled workers by high-skill college graduates as “a bit like musical chairs. Very bad.”"Musical chairs." When the music stops and there's nowhere to sit, you're out.
Edsall cites two additional studies which show the same general trend, one authored by Andrew Sum, an Economist at Northeast University, who introduces us to a brand new word: mal-employment:
In an email, Sum wrote that “problems of mal-employment among young college grads had increased since 2000, leaving more of them in jobs that do not require college degrees and they earn much less relative to their peers in college educated jobs when they do so. Mal-employment involves working in jobs that do not require a four-year degree or higher level cognitive skills.” It’s not just baristas, either: many college graduates are working in stores like Target or Whole Foods.Sort of like "malpractice," I guess. Of the generational variety.
Why is this important? Because it introduces a whole new--and potentially ugly-- variable into the political system:
The downward pressures mean that the problem of declining opportunity will now be a fact of life across nearly all classes.Interestingly, the article suggests that as bad as the news is, it may offer some hope to the Left, as those likely to be among the most affected are the kids of rich Democrats ("the children of the Democratic upscale elite"), whose parents can't figure out why all the articles they spent their lunch hours reading online, articles crowing about the plenitude of "high-tech opportunities," seem to have steered their college-schooled children right back into their basement. Edsall suggests (more or less) that the specter of Junior munching Doritos on the family couch well into his late 20's may jar Democrats into demanding more action from their government.
Insofar as men and women are pushed into jobs that pay less and provide less satisfaction, their hostility to both those above them and those below them is likely to intensify. Of course it’s impossible to say for sure, but one possible development in an environment of general downward mobility is that fewer people will keep the common good in view while focusing on their own self-interest. Competition in the workplace is likely to become increasingly pervasive, and backlash over affirmative action policies benefiting minorities and women threatens to mobilize further political reaction.
Of course, that would require them to get off their computers, talk to each other and organize.