America’s Low-Wage Future

British historian E.H. Carr once said something to the effect that while no serious scholar makes up the facts, they all choose which facts “to put on stage.”  The problem of cultural bias is that there are way too many facts to give them all their proper due, and in choosing what we think is most significant among them, we are guided by our own focus and general sense of significance – that is, by our values, our hopes and fears, and our everyday sense of how the world works.

Every two years the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) makes detailed projections of how many jobs there will be in which occupations ten years from now.  The latest one came out late last year, and among a dizzying array of facts and figures, here’s what they headlined in italics at the top of their report:

Professional and related occupations and service occupations are expected to create more new jobs than all other occupational groups from 2008 to 2018; in addition, growth will be faster among occupations for which postsecondary education is the most significant form of education or training. . . . .

This was duly reported by The New York Times under the headline “Where the Jobs Will Be,” with the same emphasis on “professional and related occupations” and “postsecondary education.”   The message is that our society is going to need many more college graduates than it has now, which is true.  The impression most often left, however, is that we are rapidly becoming a society of “professionals” and “knowledge workers,” and that the key to our future is making sure that almost everybody gets a college education.  This impression is not only false, but spectacularly so.

Disguised in the text, but present in the BLS tables is another set of facts: Only 21% of jobs now require a bachelor’s degree, and despite faster growth among these credentialed occupations, that isn’t going to change much.  By 2018, according to the BLS, only 22% of jobs will require a bachelor’s degree or more.  Of the 51 million “job openings due to [both] growth and replacement needs” in the next ten years, fewer than 12 million will require a bachelor’s degree.

At the heart of what the BLS and The New York Times choose to put on stage is a confusion between the fastest growing jobs and the jobs with the largest job growth.  Though the BLS tables report both the fast and the large in detail, the headline and the text emphasizes speed over size.  For example, the fastest growing occupation in the next ten years will be biomedical engineers; these jobs will increase by a whopping 72% from 16,000 to nearly 28,000, a net increase of 12,000 jobs.  Meanwhile, retail salespersons will see job growth of a meager 8.4%, but since there are now more than 4 million of them, that’s an increase of 375,000 jobs.

A second confusion involves the word “service,” which in other contexts is used to indicate all work that does not involve making or building things, as in “service economy.”  This usage conjures images of doctors, lawyers, teachers, and management consultants – all of them growing occupations and highly paid.  But that’s not what the BLS means by “service occupations.”  The BLS service jobs with the largest projected growth are home health and personal aides; food service workers (including fast food); nursing aides; landscaping and groundskeeping workers; medical assistants; security guards, and child care workers – all of them already very large and all of them paying “low” or “very low” wages.

Of the 30 fastest growing occupations, 14 require at least a bachelor’s degree and another five will require an associate’s degree; all 19 of these fast-growing jobs pay “very high” or “high” wages by BLS standards.  That is good news.  But among the 30 with the largest growth, only seven require a bachelor’s and one more requires an associate’s.  And, unlike the fast, of the top 30 for size, the majority of new jobs are either “low wage” or “very low wage.”   Here’s my tabulation of the largest 30 by how well they pay:

Top 30 occupations with largest projected job growth, 2008-2018

2008 median annual earnings

by quartiles (# of occupations)

# of new jobs projected % of top

30 jobs

Very High:

$51,540 & above  (7)




$32,390 to $51,530  (8)




$21,590 to $32,380  (9)



Very Low:

Less than $21,590 (6)



These top 30 occupations account for about one half of the net new jobs the BLS projects, and other data show that the wage composition of these 30 is not unrepresentative of the job structure as a whole, now and in 2018.  If these were the facts the BLS chose to put on stage, the headline might be: Majority of American workers projected to remain poorly paid and in need of a living wage.

We might then realize that we cannot close the widening gap between the earnings of high school graduates and college graduates simply by producing more college graduates.  There simply are not and will not be enough jobs requiring a college education. With a different set of facts on stage, we would understand that we need to do something to increase the majority’s wages and incomes directly.

What’s more, as a nation we know how to do this because we’ve done it before, in the three decades after World War II.  Though each has its limits, we need some combination of greater unionization, steadily improving minimum wage laws, and enhancements in the social wage, now called “work supports.”  Democrats, for all their other faults, have committed to advancing on all three of these fronts, and in the last three years have advanced a little on each of them.  College professors (called “postsecondary teachers” and #10 on the BLS largest list) could lend a hand simply by putting some of these “other” facts on our stages.  The BLS largest list is a richly complex document that reveals contradictory tendencies in what some 150 million of us do and will do to earn a living.   My arrangement of that list by educational requirements and pay simplifies it some by separating out those countertendencies.  No facts are made up, but by reorganizing the stage, the same facts make a decidedly different impression.

Jack Metzgar

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13 Responses to America’s Low-Wage Future

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  7. clarence swinney says:


    1980 to 2007

    18 years Conservative Senate
    12 years Conservative House
    6 years Total Conservative Control

    Redistribution of Wealth to top 20%.

    Folk! It is downhill slide for Middle Class.

    FACTS—numbers rounded-

    1946–1% owned 30% of Total Wealth

    1980—20%–a 33% decline due to Estate Tax and High Top Income Tax Rate.

    thence cometh conservatism


    80% Increase in 8 years of Reaganism


    2007–20% owned 93% of Total non home Financial Wealth

    80% owned equity in homes.

    Most major corporations are owned by WALL STREET RICH MEN CASINO

    In 1945, corporations paid 35.4% of federal revenues and 7.4% in 2003

    In 2000, 45% of corporations with revenue over 50 million paid no federal tax

    Five Wall Street Banks own 75% of all Bank Deposits in America. 5.

    Two own 20%.

    Think that is not POWER???


    In 8 years of Bush with 6 years of Total Control

    They (wall street rich) created a Net New Jobs of 31,000(19.000?) per month.

    Why? That is NET. You take the new jobs created and subtract the ones sent to China, etc

    31,000! Wow! 19,000?

    Bush took over after Clinton had created 237,000 Net New Jobs per month.
    Reagan took Carter 218,000 net new jobs down to 175,000 per month.

    Clinton left Bush a spending of 1830 B Per Year.

    Bush doubled it to 3600 B.

    Bush inherited a 5700B Debt from Clinton. He took it to 11,500B

    20 years of 3 conservative presidents did this horrible thing.

    Took the Debt of less than 1000B after 200 years and added on 8000B.

    In 2009 they are spinning big time to blame Obama for huge debt.

    Conservatives will spend millions to coverup their Big Recession.

    Much of that 8000B Debt add-on went to WALL STREET GAMBLERS.

    The people do not know what has happened to them.
    Shhh! Do not awaken sleeping Democrats.

    Forbes list of 400 Richest reveals how many became Billionaires via corporate
    takeovers and Hedge Gambling

    Right Wingers yell— Rich Pay most of taxes.

    Income Taxes!Yes! They have most of the income.
    From 1997 to 2001 the rich 1% took 24% of total national individual income growth

    Yet! Conservatives transferred much of taxation from Rich to Middle Class. Reagan elimination of REVENUE SHARING a disaster for Middle Class where taxes were transferred from Rich Income taxes to Middle Class in State and Local Taxes.

    Was it a Designed Act of taxation transfer by Conservatives.

    In 2008 the Middle Class paid 30% of nominal Income in Federal-State-Local Taxes.
    Top 10% paid 30% also. Progressive tax system?

    Social Security Tax Increase in 1983 was it designed to hit the Middle Class and ease on the rich?

    Greenspan + Reagan. 6.2% Tax on Middle Class. One earns $50,000 pays 6.2%. Earns $1,000,00 pays 6.4%. Earns $10,000,000 pays 1/10th of 1%. By design to keep rich rich?

    Was Destruction of S&Ls a deliberate act of wealth transfer from 400 local investors to individual Rich on Wall Street?

    Key actor Michael Milken became a Multiple Billionaire with income of 550 Million in one year from raiding S&L deposits (plus) for his Rich Corporate Raiders on Wall Street.

    Raiders like Perelman and Ichan became multiple Billionaires.
    Sweat of Brow? Ho Ho.

    Bush I had to borrow 140 Billion on 40 year bonds to pay for the raids on S&L’s by Wall Streeters.
    140B creates many Billionaires and Millionaires. Depositors money was used by those Corporate Raiders and bankrupted the S&L then the government pay off to depositors by Federal Deposit Insurance created Debt for Middle Class.

    The Tax Panel estimates that in 2010 the top 1 million with incomes exceeding $500,000 will earn 241 Billion more than 80 Million who will earn under $40,000. Christ, where art thou.

    RAPE OF MIDDLE CLASS 1980-2007

    Same ideology gave us Great Depression now Great Recession.

    It is not a Depression due to:

    Democratic Social Safety Nets such as
    Social Security and Medicare and Unemployment tinsurance

    Only the uninformed vote to send conservatives to Washington.

    Some type of Revolt will take place in next decade.

    Democrats will continue to allow Conservatives with their huge right wing talk shows spreading lies to blame them.

    Democrats need a national Megaphone informing all the people as to what has been done and how they have been RAPED by a few million RICH on Wall Street who have taken their Wealth.

    I ask one thing.

    PROVE ME WRONG. With numbers and facts not usual vile name calling
    author-Lifeaholic-Workaholic to Lifeaholic success
    All American Party-How Democrats created a great successful Middle Class and how Conservatives are determined to destroy it


  8. Bennett Steury says:

    Great post Professor Metzgar! Oftentimes we take news from reporting agencies as gospel without looking deeper into the numbers as you did here. By emphasizing the fastest growing jobs and not the biggest growth of jobs, the report allowed us to think that the future lies in college degrees and education. Instead, the future is Hamburger University. Why does the blame almost always fall to workers for not being good enough or smart enough and why do so many workers believe that?


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  11. Good post, Jack. Just the kind of thing I have been telling my UMass students these past two weeks.


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  13. Tim Francisco says:

    Great post! I would add to this that we need to think about the effects of the transformation of a college degree into job training that has been the trend over the last two decades. Increasingly, college education, particularly at access institutions, has become vocational training targeted at specific sectors–it’s a win win for the employers and for the institutions–greater enrollments for the colleges and a surplus of skilled labor for employers. The losers of course, are the students paying for what often amounts to what used to be on the job training.


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