Academic journal article Review of Social Economy

Structural Change in U.S. Labor Markets

Academic journal article Review of Social Economy

Structural Change in U.S. Labor Markets

Article excerpt

Two debates over labor market structure have occurred in the U.S. since World War II: the structuralist/aggregate demand school debate in the early 1960s and the deindustrialization debate of the 1980s. In both controversies one side offers a structural explanation in which difficulties in the labor market derive from an overall transformation of the economy. The opposing view is that labor market trends cannot be explained by a structural transformation, since no such transformation has taken place. Despite heated policy debates and impressive data collection the essential point of disagreement in both debates remains unresolved: the existence of structural change in the labor market.

This paper argues that two fundamental problems have hindered a satisfactory outcome to these recurring debates over structural change in the labor market. First, each side in the debate has a different concept of structure. If a consensus cannot be reached on what structural change in U.S. labor markets means, any debate over the existence and implications of this change is bound to be fruitless. With an imprecise or inconsistent definition of structure the question cannot be settled empirically. The second and more serious difficulty is that both sides use concepts of structure that have more to do with product markets than labor markets. The focus on product markets results from the fundamental assumption that labor demand is a derived demand. This assumption is axiomatic in neoclassical theory and exerts a powerful influence even on structuralist labor economists who reject much of the orthodox approach to labor.

The first part of this paper looks at the consequences of this approach to structure. Despite the fact that the debates were sparked by high unemployment and other disturbing trends in the labor market, the debates address labor market structure only indirectly. The theoretical arguments underlying the assorted views reflect a paradigmatic dispute over the nature of economic growth. The second part of the paper discusses the concept of labor market structure and suggests an alternative approach. The paper then returns briefly to the debates over structure to demonstrate how this alternative approach would clarify this controversy.

The Two Labor Market Debates

The initial impetus to both debates was a secular rise in average unemployment rates. The structuralist/aggregate demand school controversy resulted from an increase in the average unemployment rate to 5.8% between 1958 and 1964 (Frumkin, 1987).(1) Killingsworth (1965) argued that the trend toward higher unemployment rates was due to a structural transformation of the labor market. The disproportionate incidence of high rates of unemployment in specific segments of the labor market led to the Killingsworth twist, a forerunner of the declining middle of the 1980s. Killingsworth's conclusions were based on the observation of lower unemployment rates among more highly skilled and educated workers. However, despite the use of statistics on labor supply to support his argument, Killingsworth was arguing that it was the structure of labor demand that was undergoing transformation.

Killingsworth's structuralist arguments were countered by the Council of Economic Advisors (Bowen, 1965). The Council's contention was that although specific sub-groups of the labor force were affected differently over the business cycle, there had been no secular increase in the level of structural unemployment nor had there been significant increases in the unemployment rates of groups considered to be dominated by unskilled workers. The higher unemployment rates after 1957 were attributed to a deficiency of aggregate demand.

During the 1980s unemployment reached its highest level since the Depression. Many manufacturing industries were particularly hard hit by the recessions of the early 1980s leading to widespread layoffs and plant closings. Economists such as Robert Reich (1983), Barry Bluestone and Bennett Harrison (1982) argued that high unemployment rates and the loss of manufacturing jobs reflected long-term structural changes in U. …

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