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Correction to This Article
Charts published with a Sept. 20 front-page story showing a decline from 1967 to 2003 in the percentage of households earning $35,000 to $49,999 labeled that bracket as including the median income level. The median levels for 1967 and 1968 were $33,338 and $34,746, respectively. The charts' brackets should have been adjusted to take that into account.
The Vanishing Middle-Class Job

As Income Gap Widens, Uncertainty Spreads

More U.S. Families Struggle to Stay on Track

By Griff Witte
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 20, 2004; Page A01

Scott Clark knows how to plate a circuit board for a submarine. He knows which chemicals, when mixed, will keep a cell phone ringing and which will explode. He knows how to make his little piece of a factory churn hour after hour, day after day.

But right now, as his van hurtles toward the misty silhouette of the Blue Ridge Mountains, the woods rising darkly on either side and Richmond receding behind him, all he needs to know is how to stay awake and avoid the deer.

Chuck Moore plays with his son, Chase, 3, before bedtime. This past weekend, Moore accepted a job as a veterinary assistant for half what he had been making in his old job. (Jay Paul For The Washington Post)

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Transcript: Washington Post staff writer Griff Witte was online to field questions and comments about this article.
Video: The Washington Post's Griff Witte discusses the shift in the workforce.
The Future Job Market
A Shifting Landscape
Richmond at a Glance
About This Series

This is the first in an occasional series about the changes roiling the middle of the American workforce -- the disappearance of many jobs that pay near the national average of $17 per hour, with benefits such as health care and pensions. Other stories in the series will address how companies are moving work to temporary employees and people in other countries, and will look at the prospects for new types of jobs to take the place of those lost.

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So he guides his van along the center of the highway, one set of wheels in the right lane and the other in the left. "Gives me a chance if a deer runs in from either direction," he explains. "And at night, this is my road."

It's his road because, at 3:43 a.m. on a Wednesday, no one else wants it. Clark is nearly two hours into a workday that won't end for another 13, delivering interoffice mail around the state for four companies -- none of which offers him health care, vacation, a pension or even a promise that today's job will be there tomorrow. His meticulously laid plans to retire by his mid-fifties are dead. At 51, he's left with only a vague hope of getting off the road sometime in the next 20 years.

Until three years ago, Clark lived a fairly typical American life -- high school, marriage, house in the suburbs, three kids and steady work at the local circuit-board factory for a quarter-century. Then in 2001 the plant closed, taking his $17-an-hour job with it, and Clark found himself among a segment of workers who have learned the middle of the road is more dangerous than it used to be. If they want to keep their piece of the American dream, they're going to have to improvise.

Figuring out what the future holds for workers in his predicament -- and those who are about to be -- is key to understanding a historic shift in the U.S. workforce, a shift that has been changing the rules for a crucial part of the middle class.

This transformation is no longer just about factory workers, whose ranks have declined by 5 million in the past 25 years as manufacturing moved to countries with cheaper labor. All kinds of jobs that pay in the middle range -- Clark's $17 an hour, or about $35,000 a year, was smack in the center -- are vanishing, including computer-code crunchers, produce managers, call-center operators, travel agents and office clerks.

The jobs have had one thing in common: For people with a high school diploma and perhaps a bit of college, they can be a ticket to a modest home, health insurance, decent retirement and maybe some savings for the kids' tuition. Such jobs were a big reason America's middle class flourished in the second half of the 20th century.

Now what those jobs share is vulnerability. The people who fill them have become replaceable by machines, workers overseas or temporary employees at home who lack benefits. And when they are replaced, many don't know where to turn.

"We don't know what the next big thing will be. When the manufacturing jobs were going away, we could tell people to look for tech jobs. But now the tech jobs are moving away, too," said Lori G. Kletzer, an economics professor at the University of California at Santa Cruz. "What's the comparative advantage that America retains? We don't have the answer to that. It gives us a very insecure feeling."

The government doesn't specifically track how many jobs like Clark's have gone away. But other statistics more than hint at the scope of the change. For example, there are now about as many temporary, on-call or contract workers in the United States as there are members of labor unions. Another sign: Of the 2.7 million jobs lost during and after the recession in 2001, the vast majority have been restructured out of existence, according to a study by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.

Each layoff or shutdown has its own immediate cause, but nearly all ultimately can be traced to two powerful forces that reinforce each other: global competition and rapid advances in technology.

Economists and politicians -- including the presidential candidates -- are locked in a vigorous debate about the job losses. Is this just another rocky stretch of the U.S. economy that, if left alone, will foster new industries generating millions of as-yet-unimagined jobs, as it has during other times of upheaval? Or is the workforce hollowing out permanently, with those in the middle forced to slide down to low-paying jobs without benefits if they can't get the education, credentials and experience to climb up to the high-paying professions?

Over the next several months, The Washington Post, in an occasional series of articles, will explore the vast changes facing middle-income workers and the consequences for businesses and society.

Some of the consequences are already evident: The ranks of the uninsured, the bankrupt and the long-term unemployed have all crept up the income scale, proving those problems aren't limited to the poor. Meanwhile, income inequality has grown. In 2001, the top 20 percent of households for the first time raked in more than half of all income, while the share earned by those in the middle was the lowest in nearly 50 years.

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