Fewer “Good Jobs” Today Than 30 Years Ago

If you compare today’s workforce with the workforce of 30 years ago, several things stand out. We’re better educated, with 34 percent of workers holding a college degree in 2010, as opposed to 19 percent of workers in 1979. We’re older, thanks to a later retirement age and baby boomers who are continuing to work. And finally, and most depressingly, we’re less likely to have a good job.

What’s a “good job”? According to a recent paper by the Center for Economic Policy and Research, it’s a job that:

1. Pays at least $18.50 an hour or $37,000 per year. (Yahoo Finance points out that this was the median hourly pay, in inflation-adjusted 2010 dollars, for men in 1979.) By this criteria, we’re doing OK: 47 percent of workers earned more than that number, as opposed to 40.6 percent in 1979.

2. Offers employer-sponsored health insurance. Workers fared worse on this metric, with coverage dropping 13 percent in the time range specified.

3. Has an employer-sponsored retirement plan. Not only did participation drop sharply throughout the past thirty years, but the study’s authors point out that the shift from defined-benefit pensions to defined-contribution plans “represents a shift in risk from employer to employee.”

By these measures, only 24.6 percent of the workforce had a good job in 2010, down from 27.4 percent in 1979. So what gives?

“The standard explanation for this loss of the economy’s ability to create good jobs is that most workers skills have not kept up with the pace of technological change,” writes report co-author John Schmitt, a senior economist at CEPR. “But, it is hard to reconcile that view with the fact that even workers with a college degree are less likely to have a good job now than at the end of the 1970s.”

The report’s authors feel that the answer lies in the decline of the American worker’s bargaining power. They point to lower union representation, higher unemployment, and a lower minimum wage, adjusted for inflation.

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