The End of the American Dream?

David Autor research on the decline of mid-skill work in cities shows migration to urban areas by non-college-educated is falling

Stowe Boyd
Nov 21, 2019 · 2 min read

Early this year, I came across a video of a presentation by David Autor, the labor economist from MIT, who presented the Ely Lecture at the American Economics Association annual meeting in January, Work of the Past, Work of the Future.

The skinny is that work in the US is increasingly urban, as fewer people are migrating in the US aside from young college-educated people who move to urban areas to become educated, and then don’t leave. However, mid-skill work — which has been historically performed by non-college-educated workers — has drastically declined, and those workers have been transitioning into low-skilled — and lower-paid — work in both urban and non-urban settings. This is the result of automation, computerization, and the impact of manufacturing and clerical work moving offshore.

The economic benefits of manufacturing and other mid-skill work — like administration, sales, and so on — in urban settings, which formerly was a force attracting non-college-educated people to cities, are just no longer there. But these workers aren’t moving away, because there is nothing happening in the non-urban spaces, either. There is just an increasing split between urban low-paid workers and the urban college-educated. This split has enormous policy and political ramifications.

Truly engrossing. Truly frightening. This is only a taste of the thrust of the talk, as he gets into new research by he and his long roster of colleagues.

In the cities, the mid-skill work of non-college workers is hollowed out since 1980. They are moving into low-skill jobs, and not into high skill work, which is the opposite of college-educated workers:

This is driven by the decline of production work and clerical/administrative work. This shows the decline of middle skill non-college urban work. Economic trends have turned modern cities into as much of a mid-skill work desert as rural areas.

Stowe Boyd

Written by

Founder, Work Futures. Editor, GigaOm. My obsession is the ecology of work, and the anthropology of the future.

Work Futures

Exploring critical themes of the ecology of work, and the anthropology of the future

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