Many have expressed shock at the recent U.S. employment data. But 9.1% unemployment shouldn't be a surprise. To address the jobs challenge, we must stop pretending that this is only a difficult cyclical recovery. The root of the problem is structural.
During the two decades before the crisis of 2008-09, the U.S. economy added 27 million jobs, primarily in government, health care, construction, retail and hospitality. This employment growth was almost all in the "nontradable" side of the economy—sectors generating goods and services that must be consumed where they are produced. But several factors will depress these sectors. Government budget woes, a likely leveling-out of the dramatic growth in health-care consumption, and a permanent reduction in domestic consumption as asset prices reset downward and debt-financed purchases are reduced, will all have effects in the short-to-medium term.
The "tradable" side of the economy (which includes exportable goods and services) has its own set of issues. While finance, consulting, computer design and managing complex international businesses all fueled job growth for 20 years, these gains were matched by declines in the manufacturing jobs held by the middle class. The very things that propped up our tradable sectors through the export market—high growth rates in emerging economies and a more educated consumer class in those countries—have challenged middle-class U.S. employees on the job front. Emerging markets are now increasingly moving up the value chain with improved skills, and it's likely that higher-paying jobs—including design and even product development—will move abroad in ever greater numbers.