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A Very Uneven Road: US Labor Markets in the Past 30 Years

March 2012

Harry J. Holzer, Georgetown University and AIR
Marek Hlavac, Harvard University

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In this paper we use data from the Current Population Surveys to summarize labor market trends in the U.S. over the past 30 years. First we focus on secular trends over the four years (and three cycles) that constitute labor market peaks during this period: 1979, 1989, 2000, and 2007. Then we consider peak-to-trough changes in employment outcomes for each of the four recessions that have occurred in this period, including the Great Recession. Overall we find great unevenness in labor market performance across cycles and across demographic groups. Inequality has widened dramatically and important structural changes have occurred. Women and/or more-educated workers have gained substantially relative to men and/or the less-educated, while high earners within each group gained relative to others. The Great Recession has hurt all groups but especially young and less-educated men, whose outcomes had already deteriorated over time.

Employment, Unemployment, and the Labor Market