When it comes to middle-wage job losses, much of the focus is on the blue collar occupations that are generally held by men without college degrees — construction, installation/maintenance/repair, production, and transportation. The story of how globalization, technological change, and other factors have hollowed out these jobs is well known. Not only are their fewer such job opportunities, but their relative wages have eroded to the point where, say, the remaining manufacturing jobs no longer pay much of a premium compared to the economy overall. This is one reason nonparticipation rates are rising among prime working age men without college degrees.
However, there is an important aspect to the decline of middle-wage jobs that is generally not discussed as much: their impact on women. Whenever I give a presentation on our office’s state level job polarization work, I always talk about Mad Men. In the office scenes of the show, there is always one administrative assistant outside of each office. No modern workplace looks like that. Today, one office support specialist serves multiple managers instead with relative ease. Increased productivity can be seen due to computers, software, travel websites and the like. This speaks nothing about other office support occupations like switchboard operators, file clerks and typists which have effectively been eliminated entirely. My back of the envelope calculations show the decline of office support jobs in the Oregon economy overall from 2000 to 2015 has resulted in nearly 50,000 fewer such jobs — for both sexes and all ages — due to this increased productivity and changing workplace practices. That’s equal to one full year of good job growth in the entire state, so a huge number.
While all of the above is true and I regularly discuss these trends on both blue and white collar jobs, I still was not fully prepared for these results. The decline of office and administrative support jobs for women with a high school diploma or less rivals the decline of production jobs for men with the same educational attainment here in Oregon.
In the 1970s, about 1 in 5 prime working age Oregon men with a high school diploma or less worked in a production job, essentially the manufacturing jobs that actually do the manufacturing. In the 1980s, about 1 in 5 prime working age Oregon women with a high school diploma or less worked in an office and administrative support job. Today, employment rates in these occupations is roughly half of what it was a generation ago for these demographic groups. The production declines for men are more severe, however the decline of office support jobs for women is certainly of a similar scale.
Middle-wage job losses are not just a blue collar male issue; women have seen large erosion in employment opportunities as well. Where the gender trends differ somewhat, at least in Oregon, is that low-wage work among women without college degrees has increased in recent decades, whereas for men the increases in this type of work are pretty minimal.
As a check on the data used here, which has a relatively small sample size, I also looked at Census data from 1980 to 2014. It shows an EPOP decline for males in production jobs of 9.4 percentage points and for women in office support jobs of 7.1 percentage points. So roughly similar to the graph above. What does differ in the Census/ACS data is that the decline for women in office support occupations has all been since 2000. This decline has been particularly large from 2007 to 2014.
One thing that is clear in the ASEC data is that in the past 5-10 years, the share of office support jobs going to women with a college degree has risen considerably. From the late 1980s through 2010, the share of female office support workers with a college degree was 15-20% of all such jobs, among prime working age Oregon women. The 2013-15 average is 34%. This is a massive change. It is also confirmed by anecdotal reports from our friends at Employment, like Christian Kaylor, who talks about how businesses today use a college degree requirement for office support jobs as a mechanism to screen the applicant pool, even though the jobs generally do not require a degree. The data confirm this is having an impact on who gets the jobs.
Finally, in the Census data I also looked at the U.S. overall. Here the decline of men in production jobs with a high school diploma or less declined by a similar margin as in Oregon (9.1 percentage points nationally). However women in office support jobs only fell 4.6 percentage points over this time, considerably smaller than in Oregon. I do not have a good reason for why this differs as the historical figures for 1980, 1990 and 2000 are very similar for Oregon and the U.S. One hypothesis could be the increased number of women with college degrees in office support jobs in Oregon has been larger than national trends. Thus the shift of educational attainment within these jobs is driving the larger Oregon decline. However, that is just a hypothesis at this point.