The two reasons it really is harder to get a job than it used to be

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It used to be that jobs returned swiftly after a recession. But since the 1990s, the labor market seems to have lost much of its natural buoyancy. The past three downturns caused extended periods of underemployment. Years after economic output had fully rebounded, there were still fewer people at work.

Economists have struggled to explain the forces behind these so-called “jobless” recoveries. A popular view is that recessions are times when companies clean house and find ways to become more efficient. In recent decades, that has often meant replacing employees with computers. This could explain why the jobs we lose in a recession don’t seem to return anymore: The positions became obsolete.

New evidence says there might be another reason for these stubborn spells of low employment: After a recession, the remaining job openings may become harder to fill because employers start to demand people with better skills, who can adapt to new technologies in order to be more productive.

In other words, it’s not just that many jobs go extinct during a recession. Even the surviving jobs sometimes shift beyond recognition — and beyond the reach of many.

These are the jobs that are never coming back

Both of these theories are significant because they link jobless recoveries to another unsettling trend — the replacement of manpower by machines, which has contributed to the hollowing out of the middle class.

A striking chart comes from economists Nir Jaimovich and Henry Siu, who find that job losses in recent recessions came almost entirely from occupations defined by “routine” tasks. These are the modest but sturdy occupations that once formed the bedrock of the American middle class — think secretaries, bank tellers and machine operators.

In the past, employment in those kinds of routine jobs would always snap back after recessions. But starting with the 1991 downturn, many of these occupations started to vanish permanently, as this chart from the economists shows.

Read the full article here.

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