The unemployment rate in metropolitan Salt Lake City is low by national standards, 3.6 percent, which would seem to suggest in this age — and election — of economic anxiety that workers there have little to worry about. The local economy, however, is heavy on call-center jobs and back-end banking work.
And to the extent that economic anxiety is as much about what may happen in the future as what surrounds us in the present, the region should be a little anxious. The kinds of jobs in America that are likely to disappear in the coming years, thanks to the decline of manufacturing and the rise of automation, are particularly common around Salt Lake City.
The labor market there has a higher share of jobs in shrinking professions than, say, the Washington area, according to an analysis of government data by Jed Kolko, the chief economist at the job site Indeed. And he argues that patterns like these — which are obscured when we focus solely on places with high unemployment — help reveal where economic anxiety lurks around the country in an election season largely about such fears.
"The unemployment rate is a very good measure in a recession and a recovery of where we are relative to a full-employment economy," Kolko says. Unemployment tells us about the cyclical economy. But for long-term economic shifts — and the kinds of irreversible forces that keep workers up at night — it may be more useful to consider which corners of the country more heavily rely today on the kinds of jobs that will likely vanish tomorrow.
The two data points don't necessarily go hand-in-hand. While Salt Lake City has a high share of jobs in shrinking fields but low unemployment, metro Las Vegas has relatively high unemployment but fewer jobs in occupations that the Bureau of Labor Statistics projects will dwindle in the coming decade.
Zoom out to the state level — the geography that matters most in a presidential election — and Kolko's map of economic anxiety looks quite different from a map of state-level unemployment. Battleground states Virginia, Florida and Nevada actually appear among the least likely states to be battered by big structural shifts that will eat away at existing jobs:
Nationwide, about 10.7 percent of workers are currently in professions that the BLS projects will shrink from 2014-2024. That's a set of jobs that encompasses much more than blue-collar manufacturing. The group also includes air traffic controllers, accountants, mailmen, some kinds of computer programmers (those who will be replaced by computers themselves), as well as professions in farming and fishing. And the kinds of work many people do in Salt Lake City.
Workers in these fields have a reason to worry about their future economic prospects, even if they have jobs right now. And for them, the fear of disappearing work may resonate more strongly than abstract concepts like unemployment.
Nevada and Las Vegas in particular are in good shape because a disproportionate share of jobs there are in service and tourism professions that will be hard to automate or outsource and that are, in fact, growing. Those jobs don't necessarily pay well; safe jobs in a changing economy aren't by definition good jobs. But a hotel worker scraping to get by has a different kind of anxiety from a middle-aged coal miner who can't expect to find work at all next year.
Alongside Las Vegas, the D.C. region has the smallest share of jobs in shrinking professions (8.2 percent) among the 51 metro areas in the U.S. with a population of at least 1 million. Salt Lake City is second from the bottom (11.4 percent). The spread would look much wider if we included smaller metros with less diverse economies.
At the state level, nearly 16 percent of jobs in South Dakota today are in fields that are projected to shrink — that's nearly twice as many as the share in Maryland.
The actual role of economic anxiety in this election has been difficult to untangle. Donald Trump has made his strongest appeals to voters who oppose trade deals, fear immigration and yearn for the return of manufacturing. But survey data suggests that his supporters don't have lower incomes or higher unemployment than typical Americans. And they're not particularly likely to live in places where manufacturing employment has dried up, according to an analysis by Gallup's Jonathan Rothwell.
Kolko, though, does find that white men and the less educated — two wells of support for Trump — are the most likely to be in the kinds of jobs today that will disappear tomorrow.
"It’s very hard to tease out how much economic anxiety versus other concerns is motivating this election season," he says. "But what this analysis does show is that the groups who profess the most concern about economic anxiety in fact are more likely to be in shrinking occupations."
Place their shrinking jobs on a map, and the resulting pattern is a little more surprising.