The blue-collar middle class in the U.S. was built on manufacturing production jobs, but their number has dwindled. In major cities of the North, as the chart shows, the decline has been particularly steep. Furthermore, pay for these jobs, unlike that for highly skilled workers such as engineers, has declined relative to the national average. Several decades ago the typical production-line job did not require advanced skills but was unionized and so paid at or above the average. By 1997, however, production-line pay dropped below the average in most areas of the U.S., except where unions were still strong, such as in Detroit.
As manufacturing jobs dried up and older workers took early retirement, young people, instead of becoming assemblers or machine operators, became janitors and waiters. Such service-sector positions generally paid less than production work. The better-paying jobs were in hard-to-reach suburbs.
This article was originally published with the title Bad Things Happen.