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Labor-Market Polarization Over the Business Cycle

In: NBER Macroeconomics Annual 2014, Volume 29

  • Christopher L. Foote
  • Richard W. Ryan

During the last few decades, labor markets in advanced economies have become “polarized” as relative labor demand grows for high- and low-skill workers while it declines for middle-skill workers. This paper explores how polarization has interacted with the U.S. business cycle since the late 1970s. Consistent with previous work, the authors find that recessions are strongly synchronized across workers with different skills. Even high-skill workers favored by polarization suffer during recessions; this is particularly true during the last two downturns. Additionally, there is no evidence that polarization is driving the recent drop in the job-finding rate that has caused an adverse shift in the Beveridge curve. With this synchronization in mind, the authors then investigate the labor-market transitions of unemployed workers during recessions. When job-finding rates fall in recessions, middle-skill workers appear no more apt to leave the labor force or take low- or high-skill jobs than they are during booms. All in all, the results imply that current distress in the U.S. labor market extends far beyond middle-skill workers, and that recessions in general do not induce reallocation of middle-skill workers to jobs with better long-term outlooks.

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