The outlook is dim for Americans without college degrees

AMERICA’S AGEING economic boom can still produce pleasant surprises. Companies added an astonishing 312,000 new jobs in December, the Bureau of Labour Statistics reported on January 4th, and raised pay at the fastest clip in years. For the third of working-age Americans without any college education, such spells of rapid income growth have been exceedingly rare, not only since the financial crisis but in the past half-century. But however long this expansion lasts, their economic prospects still look grim.

The misfortunes of the left-behind were a recurring topic at this year’s meeting, in Atlanta, of the American Economic Association, one of the biggest annual convocations of economists. David Autor of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology offered the most pointed characterisation, drawing on forthcoming research co-authored with Juliette Fournier, also of MIT. The earnings of workers without a college education have scarcely risen in 50 years, after adjusting for inflation; for men they have fallen. This stagnation coincided with tectonic changes in American employment. The share of jobs that require either a lot of training, or very little, has grown since 1970. Much of the production and office work that requires moderate training, which once employed vast numbers of workers without college degrees, has disappeared, either shipped abroad or offloaded on robots and computers. The resulting hardship has been implicated in a rise in mortality in parts of America and a turn toward angry nationalism that helped put Donald Trump in the White House.

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