America’s affluent class is bigger than ever, with more disposable income to treat itself to indulgences like massages, manicures, pedicures, and personal trainers.
While jobs for middle class Americans continue to shrink, work positions are growing at the top and the bottom of the payscale. Laborers in the emerging underclass who cater to the whims of the better-off are sometimes referred to as “wealth workers."
“There are more people at the top with the wherewithal to purchase services,” says Mark Muro, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute. “Not only are there more rich people, but there are more people who are doing fairly well, and all of them are willing to pay for these services, whether it's yoga instructors or dog walking or task running. And there are more people than ever in the lower third of the distribution that really need this sort of work.”
Wealth workers are more likely to be women and Latino. These are often people without a college degree who might be working multiple jobs providing services to people who are financially better off than they are.
“What we don't have a lot of in the country is middle-wage income ... work that we might say was traditionally more solid or dignified,” Muro says.
Personal care and services occupations are the fastest growing segment of the job market for non-college-educated workers, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. These jobs are expected to grow 17% in the next decade, resulting in more than 1 million new jobs.
The number of manicurists and pedicurists doubled between 2010 and 2017, according to the Brookings Institute. And fitness trainers and dog walkers increased at up to three times the rate of overall employment.
Muro says at least 3 million people in the United States currently rely on this type of work.
“Our concern is not so much that the jobs exist, but that because of the way we structure work in America, they're not particularly good jobs. They really don't pay that well,” he says.
These workers are among the most vulnerable to exploitation by their employers, and rarely enjoy benefits like sick leave, vacation packages, pensions or retirement.
But the jobs do offer a foothold in America for new immigrants. One-third of the American workforce is currently involved in the so-called gig economy, about 10% of them full time. The rest are part time, picking up gigs — such as driving for the Uber car service — to supplement income from another job.
“I think it’s good for the economy because these are people who need those jobs and demand is the greatest source of labor power for working people,” says Louis Hyman, director of the Institute for Workplace Studies at Cornell University. “The question is not how do we get rid of the gig economy, but how do we marry that with security? And it's not just a question for gig workers, but for all low-wage workers in America.”
Hyman says one answer to the problem could be to set up a system of portable benefits.
“Every time there is a transaction, every time somebody comes to your door and delivers something to you, a dollar goes into their retirement account and a dollar goes into their health care fund,” Hyman says. “We make it easy for freelancers to have these kinds of transactions.”
It is likely there will always be demand for service work, jobs that often serve to emphasize the divide between the haves and the have-nots.
“I don't think that's a particularly attractive structure for society,” Muro says. “I think it will produce a lot of dissatisfaction and frustration among the bottom half. So I don't think, as a whole, it's a very healthy state of affairs ... let's ensure that these are dignified jobs.”