MIT economist David Autor made news in January, when he delivered the prestigious Richard T. Ely Lecture at the annual meeting of the American Economic Association and presented an attention-grabbing finding about the U.S. economy. Cities no longer provide an abundance of middle-skill jobs for workers without college degrees, he announced, based on his own careful analysis of decades of federal jobs data, which he scrutinized by occupation, location, and more. MIT News talked to Autor, the Ford Professor of Economics at MIT, about how this sea change is responsible for much of the “hollowing out” of the middle-class work force, and overall inequality, in the U.S. This interview has been edited for length.
Q: Your new research says that changes in the jobs available in cities has played a big role in the growth of inequality and polarization in the U.S. But what exactly is your new finding?
A: There’s a lot of economic literature that says, “Cities are where all the action is.” Wages are higher in cities; people flock to cities. I’ve been writing about the polarization of occupations for a long time, and the hollowing out of the middle class and the geography of that, but I always imagined that polarization reflected a time when the middle-skill jobs had been robustly present in lots of places, both urban and rural, and then hollowed out.
What I didn’t realize was the degree to which [overall U.S.] job polarization is an unwinding of a distinctive feature of high-density metro areas, which was highly present in the postwar period and is now entirely gone. There were these occupations where noncollege workers did skilled work in metro areas: production work and clerical, administrative work. These were middle-skill jobs and they were much more prevalent in cities, urban areas, and metro areas than they were in suburbs and rural areas. But that began to decline in the 1970s and is now extinct. There’s nothing remaining of that.
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