The official rate of unemployment in America has plunged to a remarkably low 3.8%. The Federal Reserve forecasts that the unemployment rate will reach 3.5% by the end of the year.
But the official rate hides more troubling realities: legions of college grads overqualified for their jobs, a growing number of contract workers with no job security, and an army of part-time workers desperate for full-time jobs. Almost 80% of Americans say they live from paycheck to paycheck, many not knowing how big their next one will be.
Blanketing all of this are stagnant wages and vanishing job benefits. The typical American worker now earns around $44,500 a year, not much more than what the typical worker earned in 40 years ago, adjusted for inflation. Although the US economy continues to grow, most of the gains have been going to a relatively few top executives of large companies, financiers, and inventors and owners of digital devices.
America doesn’t have a jobs crisis. It has a good jobs crisis.
When Republicans delivered their $1.5tn tax cut last December they predicted a big wage boost for American workers. Forget it. Wages actually dropped in the second quarter of this year.
Not even the current low rate of unemployment is forcing employers to raise wages. Contrast this with the late 1990s, the last time unemployment dipped close to where it is today, when the portion of national income going into wages was 3% points higher than it is today.
What’s going on? Simply put, the vast majority of American workers have lost just about all their bargaining power. The erosion of that bargaining power is one of the biggest economic stories of the past four decades, yet it’s less about supply and demand than about institutions and politics.