From Escalator to Hourglass: Changes in the U.S. Occupational Wage Structure 1949–1989

Publication Date:
Jan 1998
Published In:
Project Programs:
Future of Work

In this article we test whether the United States has evolved an “hourglass economy” characterized by a proliferation of jobs at the top and the bottom of the wage distribution for those with high and low educations, but few jobs in the middle for those with modest educational attainments. Rather than considering the distribution of actual wages, we examine the distribution ofoccupational wages:the average wages attached to detailed occupational categories. Using data from the 1950, 1970, and 1990 PUMS files, we compare distributions of occupational wages for men and women in 1949, 1969, and 1989. We find that the experience of men generally conforms to the hourglass metaphor: after 1969, the structure of male occupational wages polarized and began to assume the shape of an hourglass, with one's position in the hierarchy depending largely on education. For women, however, the hourglass metaphor fails. The distribution of occupational wages in 1989 remains pyramidal in shape, and position is not as strongly connected to schooling as among men.


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