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Questo articolo è stato pubblicato il 10 agosto 2011 alle ore 15:07.


CAMBRIDGE – We may live in a post-industrial age, in which information technologies, biotech, and high-value services have become drivers of economic growth. But countries ignore the health of their manufacturing industries at their peril.

High-tech services demand specialized skills and create few jobs, so their contribution to aggregate employment is bound to remain limited. Manufacturing, on the other hand, can absorb large numbers of workers with moderate skills, providing them with stable jobs and good benefits. For most countries, therefore, it remains a potent source of high-wage employment.

Indeed, the manufacturing sector is also where the world’s middle classes take shape and grow. Without a vibrant manufacturing base, societies tend to divide between rich and poor – those who have access to steady, well-paying jobs, and those whose jobs are less secure and lives more precarious. Manufacturing may ultimately be central to the vigor of a nation’s democracy.

The United States has experienced steady de-industrialization in recent decades, partly due to global competition and partly due to technological changes. Since 1990, manufacturing’s share of employment has fallen by nearly five percentage points. This would not necessarily have been a bad thing if labor productivity (and earnings) were not substantially higher in manufacturing than in the rest of the economy – 75% higher, in fact.

The service industries that have absorbed the labor released from manufacturing are a mixed bag. At the high end, finance, insurance, and business services, taken together, have productivity levels that are similar to manufacturing. These industries have created some new jobs, but not many – and that was before the financial crisis erupted in 2008.

The bulk of new employment has come in personal and social services, which is where the economy’s least productive jobs are found. This migration of jobs down the productivity ladder has shaved 0.3 percentage points off US productivity growth every year since 1990 – roughly one-sixth of the actual gain over this period. The growing proportion of low-productivity labor has also contributed to rising inequality in American society.

The loss of US manufacturing jobs accelerated after 2000, with global competition the likely culprit. As Maggie McMillan of the International Food Policy Research Institute has shown, there is an uncanny negative correlation across individual manufacturing industries between employment changes in China and the US. Where China has expanded the most, the US has lost the greatest number of jobs. In the few industries that contracted in China, the US has gained employment.

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