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Introduction to Sociology 3e

18.3 Work in the United States

Introduction to Sociology 3e18.3 Work in the United States

Learning Objectives

By the end of this section, you should be able to:

  • Describe the current U.S. workforce and the trend of polarization
  • Explain how women and immigrants have changed the modern U.S. workforce
  • Analyze the basic elements of poverty in the United States today
People attend a job fair. Several rows of tables are set up in a college gymnasium, and people walk between them and speak to each other.
Figure 18.10 Many college students and others attend job fairs looking for their first job or for a better one. (Credit: COD Newsroom/flickr)

The American Dream has always been based on opportunity. There is a great deal of mythologizing about the energetic upstart who can climb to success based on hard work alone. Common wisdom states that if you study hard, develop good work habits, and graduate high school or, even better, college, then you'll have the opportunity to land a good job. That has long been seen as the key to a successful life. And although the reality has always been more complex than suggested by the myth, the worldwide recession that began in 2008 took its toll on the American Dream. During the recession, more than 8 million U.S. workers lost their jobs, and unemployment rates surpassed 10 percent on a national level. Today, while the recovery is still incomplete, many sectors of the economy are hiring, and unemployment rates have receded.

Sociology in the Real World

Real Money, Virtual Worlds

The cover of the video game World of Warcraft, including a green, fanged ogre, is shown here.
Figure 18.11 In a virtual world, living the good life still costs real money. (Credit: Juan Pablo Amo/flickr)

If you are not one of the tens of millions gamers who enjoy World of Warcraft, Final Fantasy, Fortnite, Apex, or other online games, you might not know that for some people, these aren't just games: They're employment. The virtual world has been yielding very real profits for entrepreneurs who are able to buy, sell, and manage online real estate, currency, and more for cash (Holland and Ewalt 2006). If it seems strange that people would pay real money for imaginary goods, consider that for serious gamers the online world is of equal importance to the real one.

These entrepreneurs can sell items because the gaming sites have introduced scarcity into the virtual worlds. Scarcity of any resource, be it food, oil, gems, or virtual goods, drives supply and demand. When the supply is low, and demand is high, people are often willing to pay to get what they want. Even though the games offer enjoyment, scarcity builds tension and leads to a greater sense of satisfaction.

So how does it work? One of the ways to make such a living is by farming, gathering, or crafting certain resources, such as mining a particular ore or building a product to sell. The buyers are those looking for a competitive edge or who simply don't want to spend their time on those tasks. Other methods include power leveling, in which one person may pay another to play the game for them to acquire wealth and power in the game environment. As you may have read in the chapter on Media and Technology, an online presence can also pay dividends from advertisers or even directly from fans. Highly popular players stream their gameplay on Twitch and other services; others offer coaching, game guides, or reviews.

Then there is prize money or other compensation. Gaming tournaments may offer monetary awards to the winner. Finally, the growth of college and professional esports indicates that monetization and virtual/real-world crossovers are going to be continually lucrative in the form of sponsorship, prizes, and scholarships.

Polarization in the Workforce

The mix of jobs available in the United States began changing many years before the recession struck, and, as mentioned above, the American Dream has not always been easy to achieve. Geography, race, gender, and other factors have always played a role in the reality of success. More recently, the increased outsourcing—or contracting a job or set of jobs to an outside source—of manufacturing jobs to developing nations has greatly diminished the number of high-paying, often unionized, blue-collar positions available. A similar problem has arisen in the white-collar sector, with many low-level clerical and support positions also being outsourced, as evidenced by the international technical-support call centers in Mumbai, India, and Newfoundland, Canada. The number of supervisory and managerial positions has been reduced as companies streamline their command structures and industries continue to consolidate through mergers. Even highly educated skilled workers such as computer programmers have seen their jobs vanish overseas.

The automation of the workplace, which replaces workers with technology, is another cause of the changes in the job market. Computers can be programmed to do many routine tasks faster and less expensively than people who used to do such tasks. Jobs like bookkeeping, clerical work, and repetitive tasks on production assembly lines all lend themselves to automation. Envision your local supermarket’s self-scan checkout aisles. The automated cashiers affixed to the units take the place of paid employees. Now one cashier can oversee transactions at six or more self-scan aisles, which was a job that used to require one cashier per aisle.

Despite the ongoing economic recovery, the job market is actually growing in some areas, but in a very polarized fashion. Polarization means that a gap has developed in the job market, with most employment opportunities at the lowest and highest levels and few jobs for those with mid-level skills and education. At one end, there has been strong demand for low-skilled, low-paying jobs in industries like food service and retail. On the other end, some research shows that in certain fields there has been a steadily increasing demand for highly skilled and educated professionals, technologists, and managers. These high-skilled positions also tend to be highly paid (Autor 2010).

The fact that some positions are highly paid while others are not is an example of the class system, an economic hierarchy in which movement (both upward and downward) between various rungs of the socioeconomic ladder is possible. Theoretically, at least, the class system as it is organized in the United States is an example of a meritocracy, an economic system that rewards merit––typically in the form of skill and hard work––with upward mobility. A theorist working in the functionalist perspective might point out that this system is designed to reward hard work, which encourages people to strive for excellence in pursuit of reward. A theorist working in the conflict perspective might counter with the thought that hard work does not guarantee success even in a meritocracy, because social capital––the accumulation of a network of social relationships and knowledge that will provide a platform from which to achieve financial success––in the form of connections or higher education are often required to access the high-paying jobs. Increasingly, we are realizing intelligence and hard work aren’t enough. If you lack knowledge of how to leverage the right names, connections, and players, you are unlikely to experience upward mobility.

With so many jobs being outsourced or eliminated by automation, what kind of jobs are there a demand for in the United States? While fishing and forestry jobs are in decline, in several markets jobs are increasing. These include community and social service, personal care and service, finance, computer and information services, and healthcare. The chart below, from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, illustrates areas of projected growth.

Eight bar graphs display the projected change in occupations. Healthcare support is 22.6 percent change. Community and social service occupations is 12.5 percent change. Computer and math is 12.1 percent change. Healthcare practitioners and technical operations is 9.1 percent change. Personal care is 7.7 percent change. Food preparation and serving is 7.3 percent change. Business and financial operations is 5.3 percent change. And total of all occupations is 3.7 percent change.
Figure 18.12 Projected Percent Change, by Selected Occupational Groups, 2019-29 — This chart shows the projected growth of several occupational groups. (Credit: Bureau of Labor Statistics)

Professions that typically require significant education and training and tend to be lucrative career choices. In particular, jobs that require some type of license or formal certification – be it healthcare, technology, or a trade – usually have a higher salary than those that do not. Service jobs, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, can include everything from jobs with the fire department to jobs scooping ice cream (Bureau of Labor Statistics 2019). There is a wide variety of training needed, and therefore an equally large wage potential discrepancy. One of the largest areas of growth by industry, rather than by occupational group (as seen above), is in the health field. This growth is across occupations, from associate-level nurse’s aides to management-level assisted-living staff. As baby boomers age, they are living longer than any generation before, and the growth of this population segment requires an increase in capacity throughout our country’s elder care system, from home healthcare nursing to geriatric nutrition.

Notably, jobs in farming are in decline. This is an area where those with less education traditionally could be assured of finding steady, if low-wage, work. With these jobs disappearing, more and more workers will find themselves untrained for the types of employment that are available.

Another projected trend in employment relates to the level of education and training required to gain and keep a job. As the chart below shows us, growth rates are higher for those with more education. Those with a professional degree or a master’s degree may expect job growth of 20 and 22 percent respectively, and jobs that require a bachelor’s degree are projected to grow 17 percent. At the other end of the spectrum, jobs that require a high school diploma or equivalent are projected to grow at only 12 percent, while jobs that require less than a high school diploma will grow 14 percent. Quite simply, without a degree, it will be more difficult to find a job. It is worth noting that these projections are based on overall growth across all occupation categories, so obviously there will be variations within different occupational areas. However, once again, those who are the least educated will be the ones least able to fulfill the American Dream.

Typical entry-level education Employment change,
2019–29 (percent)
Median annual wage, 2019(1)
Total, all occupations 3.7 $39,810
Doctoral or professional degree 5.9 $107,660
Master's degree 15.0 $76,180
Bachelor's degree 6.4 $75,440
Associate's degree 6.2 $54,940
Postsecondary nondegree award 5.6 $39,940
Some college, no degree -0.1 $36,790
High school diploma or equivalent 1.5 $37,930
No formal educational credential 3.3 $25,700
Table 18.2 More education means more jobs (generally) and a higher amount of compensation. (Credit: Bureau of Labor Statistics)

In the past, rising education levels in the United States had been able to keep pace with the rise in the number of education-dependent jobs. However, since the late 1970s, men have been enrolling in college at a lower rate than women, and graduating at a rate of almost 10 percent less. The lack of male candidates reaching the education levels needed for skilled positions has opened opportunities for women, minorities, and immigrants (Wang 2011).

Women in the Workforce

As discussed in the chapter introduction, women have been entering the workforce in ever-increasing numbers for several decades. They have also been finishing college and going on to earn higher degrees at higher rate than men do. This has resulted in many women being better positioned to obtain high-paying, high-skill jobs (Autor 2010).

While women are getting more and better jobs and their wages are rising more quickly than men's wages are, U.S. Census statistics show that they are still earning only 81 percent of what men are for the same positions (U.S. Census Bureau 2020).

Immigration and the Workforce

Simply put, people will move from where there are few or no jobs to places where there are jobs, unless something prevents them from doing so. The process of moving to a country is called immigration. Due to its reputation as the land of opportunity, the United States has long been the destination of all skill levels of workers. While the rate decreased somewhat during the economic slowdown of 2008, immigrants, both documented and undocumented, continue to be a major part of the U.S. workforce.

In 2005, before the recession arrived, immigrants made up a historic high of 14.7 percent of the workforce (Lowell et al. 2006). During the 1970s through 2000s, the United States experienced both an increase in college-educated immigrants and in immigrants who lacked a high school diploma. With this range across the spectrum, immigrants are well positioned for both the higher-paid jobs and the low-wage low-skill jobs that are predicted to grow in the next decade (Lowell et al. 2006). In the early 2000s, it certainly seemed that the United States was continuing to live up to its reputation of opportunity. But what about during the recession of 2008, when so many jobs were lost and unemployment hovered close to 10 percent? How did immigrant workers fare then?

The answer is that as of June 2009, when the National Bureau of Economic Research (NEBR) declared the recession officially over, “foreign-born workers gained 656,000 jobs while native-born workers lost 1.2 million jobs” (Kochhar 2010). As these numbers suggest, the unemployment rate that year decreased for immigrant workers and increased for native workers. The reasons for this trend are not entirely clear. Some Pew research suggests immigrants tend to have greater flexibility to move from job to job and that the immigrant population may have been early victims of the recession, and thus were quicker to rebound (Kochhar 2010). Regardless of the reasons, the 2009 job gains are far from enough to keep them inured from the country’s economic woes. Immigrant earnings are in decline, even as the number of jobs increases, and some theorize that increase in employment may come from a willingness to accept significantly lower wages and benefits.

While the political debate is often fueled by conversations about low-wage-earning immigrants, there are actually as many highly skilled––and high-earning––immigrant workers as well. Many immigrants are sponsored by their employers who claim they possess talents, education, and training that are in short supply in the U.S. These sponsored immigrants account for 15 percent of all legal immigrants (Batalova and Terrazas 2010). Interestingly, the U.S. population generally supports these high-level workers, believing they will help lead to economic growth and not be a drain on government services (Hainmueller and Hiscox 2010). On the other hand, undocumented immigrants tend to be trapped in extremely low-paying jobs in agriculture, service, and construction with few ways to improve their situation without risking exposure and deportation.

Poverty in the United States

When people lose their jobs during a recession or in a changing job market, it takes longer to find a new one, if they can find one at all. If they do, it is often at a much lower wage or not full time. This can force people into poverty. In the United States, we tend to have what is called relative poverty, defined as being unable to live the lifestyle of the average person in your country. This must be contrasted with the absolute poverty that is frequently found in underdeveloped countries and defined as the inability, or near-inability, to afford basic necessities such as food (Byrns 2011).

We cannot even rely on unemployment statistics to provide a clear picture of total unemployment in the United States. First, unemployment statistics do not take into account underemployment, a state in which a person accepts a lower paying, lower status job than their education and experience qualifies them to perform. Second, unemployment statistics only count those:

  1. who are actively looking for work
  2. who have not earned income from a job in the past four weeks
  3. who are ready, willing, and able to work

The unemployment statistics provided by the U.S. government are rarely accurate, because many of the unemployed become discouraged and stop looking for work. Not only that, but these statistics undercount the youngest and oldest workers, the chronically unemployed (e.g., homeless), and seasonal and migrant workers.

A certain amount of unemployment is a direct result of the relative inflexibility of the labor market, considered structural unemployment, which describes when there is a societal level of disjuncture between people seeking jobs and the available jobs. This mismatch can be geographic (they are hiring in one area, but most unemployed live somewhere else), technological (workers are replaced by machines, as in the auto industry), educational (a lack of specific knowledge or skills among the workforce) or can result from any sudden change in the types of jobs people are seeking versus the types of companies that are hiring.

Because of the high standard of living in the United States, many people are working at full-time jobs but are still poor by the standards of relative poverty. They are the working poor. The United States has a higher percentage of working poor than many other developed countries (Brady, Fullerton and Cross 2010). In terms of employment, the Bureau of Labor Statistics defines the working poor as those who have spent at least 27 weeks working or looking for work, and yet remain below the poverty line. Many of the facts about the working poor are as expected: Those who work only part time are more likely to be classified as working poor than those with full-time employment; higher levels of education lead to less likelihood of being among the working poor; and those with children under 18 are four times more likely than those without children to fall into this category. In 2009, the working poor included 10.4 million Americans, up almost 17 percent from 2008 (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics 2011).

Graph depicting the working poverty vs. non-working poverty rates, distributed by country.
Figure 18.13 Working Poverty vs. Nonworking Poverty Rates, Circa 2000 — A higher percentage of the people living in poverty in the United States have jobs compared to other developed nations.
A map of the United States shows the percentage of people in poverty by state. New Mexico, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Kentucky, and West Virginia have 15 percent or more people living in poverty. Nevada, Arizona, Montana, Texas, Missouri, Michigan, Ohio, Florida, Georgia, Pennsylvania, and New York have 12 percent to 14.9 percent living in poverty. California, Oregon, Idaho, South Dakota, Illinois, Indiana had 11 percent of people living in poverty. Utah, Colorado, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New Jersey, and Massachusetts have less than 9.5 percent living in poverty.
Figure 18.14 Poverty rates vary by states and region. As you can see, areas with the highest level of poverty are relaively tightly clustered, but the second-highest rates of poverty occur in states across the nation, from Nevada and Arizona in the Southwest to New York in the Northeast. (Credit: U.S. Census Bureau)

Most developed countries protect their citizens from absolute poverty by providing different levels of social services such as unemployment insurance, welfare, food assistance, and so on. They may also provide job training and retraining so that people can reenter the job market. In the past, the elderly were particularly vulnerable to falling into poverty after they stopped working; however, pensions, retirement plans, and Social Security were designed to help prevent this. A major concern in the United States is the rising number of young people growing up in poverty. Growing up poor can cut off access to the education and services people need to move out of poverty and into stable employment. As we saw, more education was often a key to stability, and those raised in poverty are the ones least able to find well-paying work, perpetuating a cycle.

Another notion important to sociologists and citizens is the expense of being poor. In a practical sense, people with more money on hand, better credit, a more stable income, and reliable insurance can purchase items or services in different ways than people who lack those things. For example, someone with a higher income can pay bills more reliably, as well as have more credit extended to them through credit cards or loans. When it comes time for those people to purchase a car, for example, they can likely negotiate a lower monthly payment or less money down. In an even more simplistic situation, people with more spending money can buy groceries in bulk, spending far less per unit than those who must purchase smaller portions. The single greatest expense for most adults is housing; beyond its significant portion of a family's expenses, housing drives many other costs, such as transportation (how close does someone live to the places they need to go), childcare, and other areas. And people in poverty pay significantly more for their housing than others – sometimes 70-80 percent of their total income. Those with fewer resources are also more likely to rent rather than own, so they do not build credit in the same way, nor do they have the opportunity to sell the property later and utilize their equity (Nobles 2019).

The ways that governments, organizations, individuals, and society as a whole help the poor are matters of significant debate, informed by extensive study. Sociologists and other professionals contribute to these conversations and provide evidence of the impacts of these circumstances and interventions to change them. The decisions made on these issues have a profound effect on working in the United States.

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