Good Jobs and Bad Jobs

John Boehner

Re-useable Walmart bags in a Walmart Neighborhood Market in Chicago.Jim Young/ReutersRe-useable Walmart bags in a Walmart Neighborhood Market in Chicago.

Often missing in the jobs, jobs, jobs conversation—John Boehner’s promise to focus on jobs, the fight over whether Democrats or Republicans are responsible for the lack of jobs, the paeans to private-sector job-creators, the denigration of public-sector job-creators—is that some jobs are better than others.

Which is why the decline in the jobless rate, from 9.1 percent last summer to 8.3 percent in February, is cause for only modest celebration.

As we wrote in one of our Wednesday editorials, “at least 40 percent of the new private sector jobs fall into low-paying categories.” People are finding work at bars and restaurants and in retail. By and large they’re not getting hired as teachers, librarians or road workers (better-paid, more secure positions.)

Something we didn’t mention in the editorial is how the good job/bad job divide is affecting the young. An article in the spring issue of Good magazine notes that nearly half of people in the 16 to 29 age bracket don’t have a job, and that a quarter of those who do work in the hospitality industry. The article also points to a study of 4 million Facebook profiles (I grant that it probably wouldn’t stand up to peer review as a scientific sampling), which found that “after the military, the top four employers listed by twenty-somethings were Walmart, Starbucks, Target, and Best Buy.” Those are often part-time jobs, and they’re not stable. They certainly don’t provide entry to the middle class.

There’s no easy solution to this problem. At least I haven’t heard one. Some of our representatives in Washington think a manufacturing revival will take place just as soon as we slash taxes on the rich even further. That sounds like a fairy tale to me. And, as Christine Romer, formerly a senior economic adviser to the president, wrote in The Times recently, the “pay premium for low-skilled workers in manufacturing is smaller than it once was” due to increased international competition. The government could also create decent jobs by putting money into public works projects (and there’s pretty much always need for things like highway maintenance so this wouldn’t necessarily be a short-term solution). But federal spending is anathema to the right, so that doesn’t seem likely to happen either.

Or, instead of trying to re-create the 20th century economy, we could work with what we have—meaning we could work to improve the lot of service-industry personnel – or even better allow them to help themselves. A job at a Michigan car factory is not inherently better than a job at a clothing store or a restaurant; it’s more desirable because it pays better, and it pays better because a few generations ago the Detroit labor force unionized. A job at Walmart with a pension upon retirement doesn’t sound too bad. It could happen through collective bargaining.

In other words, let’s not try to recreate the 20th century economy. Let’s just allow a 20th century labor movement to thrive in the 21st.

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