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U.S. working class increasingly diverse

As whites retire, youth of color without degrees take their place

Jule Pattison-Gordon

Young people of color are likely to become the majority of the nation’s working class by 2032, according to a report released last week from the Economic Policy Institute. This would mark the nation catching up with a situation already in play in Boston.

Driving the national shift are several factors: The younger population is becoming increasingly people of color, and, unless trends change, blacks and Latinos are the groups most likely to lack college degrees, making them more likely to enter working class jobs freed up by retiring non-Hispanic whites, according to EPI report. Between 2012 and 2022, 50.6 million jobs are expected to open, nearly two-thirds of them working-class.

On the web

Read the EPI report: www.epi.org/publication/the-changing-demographics-of-americas-working-class

Read the state’s Vision Project report: www.mass.edu/visionproject/degreegap.asp

Today, Americans 18-64 of age who are in the labor force and hold less than a bachelor’s degree — that is, the population most likely to be employed in working class positions — is 60.5 percent white, 21.6 percent Latino, 14.4 percent black and 3.5 percent Asian, according the report. As the level of whites in the working class drops, the level Latinos is expected to rise notably, while the level of blacks and Asians would increase slightly. Estimates are that by 2032 the working class will be 49.6 percent non-Hispanic white, 31.5 percent Latino, 14.8 percent black, and 4.1 percent Asian.

There is a gender aspect as well: The working class is expected to be more male, with particularly strong showing from Latino men. (While the presence of women is expected to decrease overall, a greater share of Latinas is predicted).

Increasing numbers of Latinos and blacks in the working class has the potential to exacerbate racial wage gaps, given the typically lower earnings and less desirable job conditions of this kind of work. On average, American workers age 25 and up who were employed full-time in 2015 and had no more than an associate’s degree earned approximately $798 per week or less, according to the March 2016 data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. But for workers who held a bachelor’s degree, average weekly earnings were $1,137, and average pay continued to rise with educational attainment. A March 2016 report from Boston’s Office of Workforce Development noted that Boston jobs that do not make higher education a prerequisite tend to offer less pay, fewer benefits, fewer pathways to advance and less predictable schedules.

The EPI report’s author highlights persistent wage stagnation and suggests that working conditions, education and other systemic reforms be taken to ensure that people who enter working class jobs do so out of choice, rather than necessity from lack of other options, and that such jobs bring a higher quality of life.

Boston and Massachusetts

While the national population and U.S. working class increasingly comprises people of color, Boston is already there. People of color constitute the majority of the city’s population — 54 percent — and are overrepresented in the working class, at 70 percent, according to information from the Boston Redevelopment Authority. Boston’s working class is 31 percent black, 26 percent Latino and 10 percent Asian.

Although Bostonians are more likely to hold degrees than the average U.S. citizen, this educational attainment is not distributed equally.

“Boston is, on average, better-educated than the U.S. population, but as our recent Labor Market Study highlighted there is certainly a disparity along racial lines when it comes to educational attainment,” BRA researchers told the Banner. “This issue is a priority for us to address as a city if we’re going to close the wage and skill gaps that help contribute to overall inequality.”

In contrast to the national job market, more of Boston’s jobs require a higher degree. Those without bachelor’s degrees represent slightly more than half of Boston’s civilian labor force age 18 to 64, according to the BRA, compared to two-thirds nationally. The demand for degrees is high across the state as well: Only 37 percent of online job postings in Massachusetts do not require at least a four-year degree, according to a Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce analysis reported by the Massachusetts’s Department of Higher Education.

Both the city and the state are taking stock of the need to tackle barriers to entering and completing higher education. The state department of higher education recently released a “Vision Project” report predicting that by 2025 the supply of college-educated workers from Massachusetts’s public higher ed institutions will fall short of employer’s demands by 55,000 to 65,000.

Targeting persistent racial college completion gaps could go far to fix this. The majority of Massachusetts’ Latino and black undergrads enroll in public colleges or universities, but less than a third complete a degree within six years, according to the Vision Project report.

“College graduation rates for students of color remain troublingly low, with little system-level change over the years,” the report states.

Report authors recommend focusing on three goals: providing greater access to higher education, increasing rate of college completion among those who do enroll and targeting the achievement gap for black and Latino students.