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MIT’s David Autor recently released a paper on the effects of job polarization in American urban labor markets — a process whereby middle-income occupations recede relative to high- and low-paying occupations. Examining five decades of Census data, Autor found that city-dwelling workers without college degrees are now more likely to fill lower-paying, lower-skill jobs than they were in the past. Many commentators have seized upon Autor’s paper to claim cities may no longer be the land of opportunity for non-college educated workers.
This is a narrow interpretation of Autor’s findings. Over the same period, American cities have become more productive, more diverse, and better places to settle down and raise a family. At a time when geographic mobility among less-educated workers is at an all-time low, resurgent American cities should remain a destination for people seeking to move to opportunity.
Until recently, blue-collar production and white-collar clerical jobs made up a substantial share of urban labor markets. These kinds of urban “middle-skill” jobs — often done in close collaboration with highly-trained professionals — offered workers without college educations substantial wage premiums over their rural counterparts.
But growing international trade and modernized supply chains moved factories out of cities or out of the US altogether. The proliferation of personal computing and advanced information technology decimated the ranks of office clerks and administrative support staff. As a result, the share of middle-skill work in some dense urban areas fell by more than fifteen percentage points relative to the 1970s.
But it’s important to look at what has replaced these jobs. As Autor notes, “the decline of middle-skill employment is fully absorbed by a simultaneous rise in high-skill employment — that is, there is essentially no aggregate change in the share of workers employed in traditionally low-skill jobs over the course of 45 years.” And while non-college occupational movement tended towards low-skill jobs, educational attainment levels in cities have increased dramatically. In some of the densest commuting zones, almost forty percent of working-age adults have a college degree.
Beyond labor market statistics, other metrics show that the quality of life in cities has improved remarkably. Following the flight of affluent residents in the fifties and sixties, deindustrialization throughout the seventies, and drug epidemics that plagued inner cities in the eighties, cities used to be places of despair. But with new economic footing and better policing, violent crime in urban areas has declined since its peak in the 1990s. Young professionals are attracted to urban life and opportunity, and once deeply segregated urban neighborhoods are becoming racially and ethnically diverse, which has positive implications for social mobility.
While rapid gentrification of neighborhoods has sometimes led to strained relationships between neighborhood newcomers and incumbents, it is undeniable that this process brings new investment and vibrant businesses. And as a long-term urban resident and someone who thinks integration by class, race, and ethnicity is good for America, I would take gentrification over white flight any day.
Autor concludes his paper with a discussion on the future of work in cities. As urban economies continue to advance, high-paying jobs will increasingly demand some kind of advanced degree or training. But the upskilling required does not need to come from a traditional, four-year institution. Community colleges and noncredit skills training offer relatively quick programs that provide workers the competencies needed to land a more lucrative job. Large urban employers can also play a role by offering their entry-level workers career advancement through training, and some have already been heeding this call.
My conclusion from Autor’s paper is that cities are still full of opportunity, and the potential for upward advancement is still accessible to those willing to invest in the education needed to take advantage of it.
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