Do you have a better job today than when you first started working? Most of us do.
Yet with gas prices high and the housing market weakening, economic anxieties are worrying many Americans. On the campaign trail, politicians frighten voters with stories about high-paying jobs being sent abroad. It’s easy to believe good jobs are increasingly hard to find.
Still, relatively few Americans believe that their situation has gotten worse over the past few decades. Most of us have watched our incomes climb. Why the disconnect?
Stories about job losses do contain a great deal of truth. The economy is constantly in flux, as technology and consumer preferences change. Many good jobs have disappeared over the past 30 years. So have many menial, low-wage positions, although their disappearance attracts much less attention.
But, this picture is incomplete. Entrepreneurs create new jobs even as existing companies go under. Computer technicians have replaced the typewriter repairmen that IBM put out of business.
Looking at the overall economy paints a different picture than that you see on the news. Yes, good jobs — and bad jobs — are lost every day. But government data show employers are creating more jobs in high-paying occupations and fewer jobs in less well-paid occupations.
The proportion of Americans working in the three most highly paid job sectors has expanded 10 percent since 1980. Most Americans believe they are personally better off today than a generation ago — because they are.
Technology and innovation have transformed the work most Americans do. Many repetitive tasks have been automated. Robots have taken many workers off the assembly lines where goods are produced and the freight yards that ship them to the market. E-mail and answering machines have reduced the need for secretaries.
Although many Americans believe that free trade has shipped manufacturing jobs overseas, the truth is that technology has reduced the need for manufacturing workers worldwide. China has lost more manufacturing jobs over the past 13 years than exist in America today.
But, machines cannot think for people. Employers need more skilled and educated workers who can think and create and innovate. The economy has shifted away from jobs that require physical labor towards jobs that require interpersonal skills and brainpower. More Americans work as financial specialists, designers, medical technicians, lawyers and software developers than ever before.
This is good news for American workers. Do you dream of your children or grandchildren working on an assembly line when they grow up? The Americans who work these jobs are doing hard work that is worthy of respect — but few workers enjoy wearing out their body in a factory.
Americans should celebrate the economic transitions that reduce the manual labor and repetitive tasks that workers must perform. These same transitions are enabling them to use their individual talents on the job.
This has been especially good news for women, who are put at a disadvantage by jobs that demand greater physical strength. A shift towards jobs that favor brainpower over brawn puts men and women on an equal footing, and this has narrowed the gap between male and female earnings in recent decades.
The economy now provides more opportunities for upward mobility than existed a generation ago. Employers today need more skilled and educated employees, not more workers to fill burger-flipping jobs. This means higher incomes for American workers. The annual earnings of the average American worker have risen more than one-sixth since 1993.
And contrary to popular perception, workers aren’t losing health benefits. Four-fifths of working Americans have employer-provided health coverage, the same percentage as in the mid-1990s. Employers do spend more on providing health care, and are requiring employees to contribute more toward the cost of health coverage. But that is because heath care has become more expensive (and much better, to boot), not because good jobs are disappearing.
Still, many in Washington argue for nationalizing health care because employer-provided coverage is disappearing. Others argue that Congress should swell the ranks of organized labor, to somehow defend good jobs. To do this they would take away workers’ right to vote on joining a union with a secret ballot election.These ideas could up-end the economy to fix a problem that doesn’t exist. Though some good jobs have disappeared, the long-term trend in the economy is towards higher-paying jobs that take advantage of our educated workforce. That’s good news, by any measure.
James Sherk is a Bradley Fellow in Labor Policy at The Heritage Foundation. (heritage.org)