For the first few decades after the Second World War, per-capita U.S. economic growth averaged between two and three per cent a year. In the nineties, however, it dipped below two per cent. In the early two-thousands, it was less than one per cent. This past decade, it remained below 1.5 per cent.
Different populations have experienced this slowdown very differently. The earnings advantage for those with college degrees soared. Anti-discrimination measures improved earnings and job prospects for black and Hispanic Americans. Though their earnings still lag behind those of the white working class, life for this generation of people of color is better than it was for the last.
Not so for whites without a college education. Among the men, median wages have not only flattened; they have declined since 1979. The work that the less educated can find isn’t as stable: hours are more uncertain, and job duration is shorter. Employment is more likely to take the form of gig work, temporary contracting, or day labor, and is less likely to come with benefits like health insurance.
Among advanced economies, this deterioration in pay and job stability is unique to the United States. In the past four decades, Americans without bachelor’s degrees—the majority of the working-age population—have seen themselves become ever less valued in our economy. Their effort and experience provide smaller rewards than before, and they encounter longer periods between employment. It should come as no surprise that fewer continue to seek employment, and that more succumb to despair.
The problem isn’t that people are not the way they used to be. It’s that the economy and the structure of work are not the way they used to be. This has had devastating effects on the family and on community life. In 1980, rates of marriage by middle age were about eighty per cent for white people with and without bachelor’s degrees alike. As the economic prospects of those two groups have diverged, however, so have their marriage prospects. Today, about seventy-five per cent of college graduates are married by age forty-five, but only sixty per cent of non-college graduates are. Nonmarital childbearing has reached forty per cent among less educated white women. Parents without bachelor’s degrees are also now dramatically less likely to have a stable partner for rearing and financially supporting their children.
Atul Gawande, “The Blight”, The New Yorker (23 March 2020), 62.