The latest employment data has brought some startling news. For one thing, after decades of seeing the rising tide lift only a very few boats, it seems that wages at the lowest end of the scale are beginning to rise, and rise fastest for the lowest-paid workers: the youngest and least-educated workers. For those age 25-34, wages are rising annually at a rate of almost 5 percent, and for those without even a high school diploma, at about 6 percent.
Uneven wage growth, cited as the cause of widening income inequality and the demise of the middle class, has been broadly attributed to the increased demand for educated labor as our economy evolved from reliance on manufacturing to technology; or to the role of superstars and the marginalization of mediocrity in professions from sports to entertainment to finance; or to the institutionalization of the meritocracy as a conduit of wealth and power from generation to generation; or to our lopsided tax codes, urbanization, and aging society.
Before we get too optimistic about a reversal of widening inequality, consider that it’s taken 40 years for low income wages to move up at all, and while the fact that they’re growing is great, it’ll take a lot for them to catch up. Another sobering note is that wages rise at the end of a growth cycle—they are a lagging indicator, the last thing to benefit from increased prosperity—and that could mean that a downturn is close.
The other piece of surprising news is that the share of women on payrolls, excluding farmworkers and the self-employed, surpassed the share of men for the first time since 2010. Women now hold more than half of the wage-paying jobs in our economy. It seems that traditionally and predominantly female fields, like education and health care, are adding jobs while traditionally male fields, such as mining and manufacturing, are paring back. And that our labor market is still—still—so segregated by gender.
The last time women held more of our jobs was during the Great Recession. Then, all sectors of the economy were shedding jobs, and unemployment was rising, especially in manufacturing. But that is not the case now, with unemployment at historic lows. This is an economy that is still creating jobs and that still has jobs to be filled. This shift, coming at a time of abundance, seems to be more indicative of a developing trend than a lagging reaction.
The data excludes the self-employed, who may in fact be the fastest growing segment of our workforce, the ever-expanding legions of the gig economy. If self-employment is the future of employment, then women are once again lagging the trend. And the “trend” is once again pointing toward less compensation for work. Self-employment does not promise more income, and certainly promises more risk: without health insurance, retirement saving, or continuing education.
There has been much discussion about how the economy is changing, and especially how technology is changing our work. It is certainly changing the skills needed to succeed, and the jobs that are available to us. Manufacturing jobs were among the first to go, and now even the service sector is changing. Where workers have not been replaced by someone abroad, they are likely to be assisted by a robot, or, increasingly, “there’s an app for that.”
The problem with all economic cycles is that it is very hard to see them from the inside. We can compare this labor data to what has happened in the last 10 or 40 years, but we can’t know where we are in the longer arc of history. People make decisions about their career paths, education, and in effect their prospects for the future while necessarily looking out only from the present and knowing only the past.
The rational economic decision maker depends on information flowing through markets. Besides, data is comforting: we can see something, so we feel we can know something. Is it a cycle ending and another beginning or continuation of a longer trend? Does it say something about a profound shift in how we live or is it just more of the same, with perhaps a new nuance thrown in?
Rising wages are a sign of a leveling playing field and a broader economic participation in prosperity, or of an aging and dying growth cycle. The predominance of women in payroll jobs either confirms their more equal economic opportunities, or their wisdom in staying on a payroll, or their being the last to the party, which has, for all intents and purposes, ended. Only time will really tell.