Low-Wage Work Becomes The New Normal

It’s been well documented that the recession eliminated most of the already-declining number of well-paying jobs, with most of the (still-anemic) growth in employment occurring overwhelmingly in low-paying sectors. Now the latest report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), courtesy of Business Insider, further underscores this troubling trend, revealing that nearly all of the top ten most common jobs are low-paying.

So retail and food (wherein most cashiers work) represent the lion’s share of new job growth.

To emphasize just how low-paying most of these vocations are, consider how much their annual mean pay matches up with the overall national mean wage (e.g. all U.S. occupations combined).

Registered nurses are the only folks doing fairly well, on average. Most of the other common jobs fall well short of the annual mean wage, with the three most common being around half or less of it. Needless to say, this represents a troubling development. While the degree to which one can survive on a low wage does vary by state, county, or city, overall you can’t get by for very long in many parts of the country by just working in these positions (which, by the way, typically lack benefits, paid sick leave, and full-time hours).

It’s also worth pointing out that given the decline the minimum wage’s value — when adjusted for inflation it’s actually less than what it was in 1968 — a lot of these menial and currently low-paying positions would actually have offered a decent standard of living (at least relative to what they do now). With the application of new technology and various administrative changes within businesses (outsourcing, streamlining management, etc) the economy seems to have reached a point where there just isn’t enough need for anything but food, consumer goods, medical care, and the like; even then, we need a lot more cashiers and cooks then we do doctors, managers, and lawyers — hence all the growth in the former jobs as compared to the latter.

In short, I think we need to re-think the way we pay people and scale back the notion that only “skilled” or technical work deserves a decent, living wage. The fact is, most well-paying professions have been replaced, rendered redundant, or simply aren’t in high enough demand relative to the number of people who need steady work. If companies have the resources to pay people better — and indeed most of the lowest-paying employers are very profitable — they should pay well enough to ensure a decent standard of living for their employees. After all, we can’t sustain an economy without a large market of consumers, who in turn can’t consume if they’re increasingly taking on low-paying work.

I’ll close by noting that this chart is full of caveats, as expressed by many of the commentators below. There are claims that the numbers attributed to certain professions don’t add up with other data, or that the mean annual wage for some jobs have been miscalculated, etc. I honestly don’t have the time to analyze the veracity of those criticism, but I leave it to your best judgment to determine the matter. Of course, always feel free to share your thoughts.

Hat tip to my friend Michael for first sharing this piece.

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