From an article by James Surowiecki in the New Yorker (August 12, 2013) The Pay Is Too Damn Low:
Historically, low-wage work tended to be done either by the young or by women looking for part-time jobs to supplement family income. As the historian Bethany Moreton has shown, Walmart in its early days sought explicitly to hire underemployed married women. Fast-food workforces, meanwhile, were dominated by teen-agers. Now, though, plenty of family breadwinners are stuck in these jobs. That’s because, over the past three decades, the U.S. economy has done a poor job of creating good middle-class jobs; five of the six fastest-growing job categories today pay less than the median wage.
That’s why, as a recent study by the economists John Schmitt and Janelle Jones has shown, low-wage workers are older and better educated than ever. More important, more of them are relying on their paychecks not for pin money or to pay for Friday-night dates but, rather, to support families. Forty years ago, there was no expectation that fast-food or discount-retail jobs would provide a living wage, because these were not jobs that, in the main, adult heads of household did. Today, low-wage workers provide forty-six percent of their family’s income. It is that change which is driving the demand for higher pay.
The situation is the result of a tectonic shift in the American economy. In 1960, the country’s biggest employer, General Motors, was also its most profitable company and one of its best-paying. It had high profit margins and real pricing power, even as it was paying its workers union wages. And it was not alone: firms like Ford, Standard Oil, and Bethlehem Steel employed huge numbers of well-paid workers while earning big profits. Today, the country’s biggest employers are retailers and fast-food chains, almost all of which have built their businesses on low pay—they’ve striven to keep wages down and unions out—and low prices.
Note: I wrote a letter to the editor of the New Yorker:
In his excellent article "The Pay Is Too Damn Low" James Surowiecki makes one misstatement: "Apple employs just seventy-six thousand people". But between Apple and Nike alone they employee over 2 million people as "contract manufacturers" in Asia. Apple was not a good example. Maybe he could have mentioned America's second largest private sector employer, which is a temp agency called Kelly Services with 538,000 workers. Walmart also hires temps, calling them "flexible associates".
Also read: The China Toll - "The growing U.S. trade deficit with China cost more than 2.7 million jobs between 2001 and 2011, with job losses in every state."