As the US economy slowly rebuilds and the smoke from four years of charred capital starts to dissipate, we can discern the shape of the next 20 years of job growth. What we see is an economy unlike any we’ve ever known.
The recovery needs to be revolutionary, because our most recent financial meltdown laid bare a fundamental change in the US economy. Since sometime in the 1970s—economists generally agree on the trend, if not the exact date—the US has been increasingly divided into two groups: those whose economic fortunes grow and those whose wages stay stagnant. This divide has many potential causes, including the rise in global trade, technological advances, the decline in unions, and slowing growth in education. But the full impact of these shifts was long masked, first by the stock market bubble and then by a massive credit and housing bubble, which flooded the economy with money we hadn’t really earned. For nearly 20 years we felt richer than we were.
Now, as the economy slowly rebounds, it is doing more than just gaining jobs. By looking closely at data from both government and academic sources, we can see the gradual emergence of a whole new category of middle-class jobs: a realm of work that (given time and luck) could begin to close the chasm in American employment. These new middle-class jobs are what you might call smart jobs. They’re innovative and high tech, but most of them are located far from Silicon Valley or New York. They’re specialized, but that doesn’t mean you need a PhD or even (in some cases) a college degree to get them or to do them well—though they do require some serious training, whether on the job or in a vocational program.