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Where Are the Secure Jobs?

The American labor market’s failure to produce family-supporting jobs is fundamental to the nation’s problems.

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For a nation awash in economic data, the United States knows remarkably little about work. Much as gross domestic product as a measure of growth and prosperity considers only aggregate output and not its composition or distribution, the labor market’s signature unemployment and wage statistics obscure at least as much as they describe. 

Unemployment includes only those actively looking for work—thus, it has been holding near a record low even as the share of prime-age men not working languishes at levels seen only in the deepest recessions. 

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Any job, meanwhile, counts as employment. When the economy creates 100,000 new ones, few ask how many are secure jobs capable of supporting families—and, anyway, even if they did the Bureau of Labor Statistics couldn’t answer. Its economists closely track the price of each deli meat in each city to estimate inflation. But a job is a job. And in right-of-center policy colloquia hosted at luxury hotels in Washington, the speakers seem often to assume those jobs look more or less like their own: fair and predictable pay, stable hours, good benefits. Why would anyone turn that down?

Of course, without irony or any sense of self-awareness, the same commentators and analysts who reflexively defend the American economy’s wonderful performance as if it were their mothers’ honor at stake will explain that overly generous welfare benefits are keeping potential workers on the sideline. The economy is creating great jobs, and also people would rather rely on food stamps, Medicaid, and a disability check than take one.

When Oliver Anthony’s “Rich Men North of Richmond” caught the nation’s ear last month, beginning with a shrill lament for “sellin’ my soul, workin’ all day, overtime hours for bullshit pay,” National Review executive editor Mark Antonio Wright was quick to set him straight: “My brother in Christ, you live in the United States of America in 2023 — if you’re a fit, able-bodied man, and you’re working ‘overtime hours for bullshit pay,’ you need to find a new job.”

As luck would have it, the same week Anthony went viral, American Compass was fielding its new tracking survey on the actual state of the American labor market. Among 1,000 workers, how many had a secure job—defined as annual earnings of $40,000 or more, at least somewhat predictable future income, health benefits and paid time off, and satisfactory control over scheduling? Just 40 percent. Among those without a four-year college degree, that falls to 30 percent. 

It is easy to tell one man, “If you’re the type of guy who’s willing to show up on time, every time, work hard while you’re on the clock, and learn hard skills — there’s a good-paying job out there for you. Go find it.” But can you say that to 70 percent of the American workers without a college degree, more than 50 million people? 

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Maybe all 50 million just lack initiative, personal responsibility, that old American pluck separating National Review writers and American Enterprise Institute scholars from the unwashed masses. But were that the case, the problem would remain that the American labor market’s structure could not offer them good jobs even if they had made investments to pursue them. Confirming this are the tens of millions of Americans whom the Federal Reserve Bank of New York classifies as “underemployed,” because they have earned college degrees but are still in jobs where one is not typically held. Fully 40 percent of recent college graduates are underemployed, and that figure remains at one-third for all college graduates. As American Compass has documented in previous research, on The False Promise of Good Jobs, the United States is producing bachelor’s degrees at twice the rate the economy is producing jobs classified as requiring one.

The American labor market’s failure to produce family-supporting jobs is fundamental to the nation’s problems—both economic and social—and requires attack from all sides. Certainly, the safety net provides all manner of bad incentives. Certainly, many people are not pursuing opportunities available to them. But assuming that because those explanations could apply to any individual they can apply to each individual, without zooming out and recognizing they cannot possibly apply to most or all of them, is a basic cognitive error and leads toward “solutions” that do not scale.

What will it take to shift the American model of growth to one that generates the tens of millions of better jobs that our nation needs? Creating such jobs has to be the best path to achieving profit, a condition that plainly does not hold today. Any number of initiatives—from industrial policy that rewards hard investment to education policy that supports employer-led training—might help. But ultimately, there is no substitute for strengthening worker power, so that offering secure jobs becomes absolutely necessary to maintaining a workforce and earning any profit at all. 

Both labor and immigration policy can play leading roles here. Workers achieve better pay, conditions, and labor-management relations when they are able to act collectively and collaboratively. America’s 1930s labor laws have proven dysfunctional, and Big Labor a corrosive force, but the Republican Party’s inclination to cheer on the labor movement’s demise is no solution at all. Reform should instead focus on supporting the creation of unions and other worker organizations that can represent workers effectively.

The flow of unskilled and easily exploited workers into the labor market, meanwhile, must end. Immigration can bring many benefits to an economy, but when it supplies labor to fill insecure jobs it creates the wrong incentives for employers and undercuts workers already here. Congress should end low-wage guest-worker programs, focus permanent immigration on workers in high-wage segments of the market, and impose draconian penalties on employers who violate the law and hire illegally. 

The business lobby will scream “labor shortage” and complain about “jobs Americans won’t do,” supported every step of the way by economists who conveniently forget economics whenever workers are involved. In fact, there is no such thing as a labor shortage, only employers whose business models are unresponsive to market conditions; they should innovate. “Jobs Americans won’t do” exist only when that is what employers create; they should stop. Labor Day can be for celebrating market forces, too.

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