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No college degree? Your best bet might be serving the rich

  • The fastest-growing segment of the U.S. job market for people without a college education is in personal care and service jobs, analyses of labor data show.
  • Such "wealth work" jobs mostly consist of providing services to affluent Americans, like yard work, dog-walking and massage. 
  • While plentiful, these jobs tend to pay far less than the typical U.S. job, offer few benefits and are more tenuous.

Although Americans without college degrees have been steadily squeezed out of the labor market in recent decades, a new career path beckons: working for the rich. 

This new "servant class" tends to the yards, children, pets, beauty and other needs of affluent households, according to policy experts at The Brookings Institution. And for those lacking a diploma, such jobs represent the fastest-growing segment of the labor market, according to the think tank, which cites data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. 

How did we get here? After all, Americans with only the benefits of a high school education, or less, once worked in steel mills and the office secretarial pool, earning solid middle-class salaries and benefits. But the last few decades have hollowed out many of those stable jobs, thanks to the double whammy of automation and global trade. That work has largely been replaced by service jobs catering to wealthier people, economic research shows.

In other words, the new shape of work -- with better paid, college-educated professionals on one end and low-paid service workers on the other -- is a "sign of our unequal times," Mark Muro, policy director of Brookings' Metropolitan Policy Program, and Jacob Whiton, a research analyst, wrote.

Where "wealth work" is found

Almost 8% of U.S. families earned more than $200,000 per year in 2017, compared with 5.7% a decade earlier, according to the Census Bureau. Wealth in cities like San Francisco and New York has grown at an even faster rate, thanks to high-paying jobs in the tech industry and on Wall Street. 

That's led to a clustering of what some experts are calling "wealth work" in coastal cities like Boston and San Francisco, as well as in resort towns such as Hilton Head, South Carolina, and Kahului, Hawaii, according to Brookings.

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For the well-off, meanwhile, hiring service workers makes financial sense. 

"It's the same reason I have someone come and clean my house," Sue Forrest, 58, told the Associated Press about her decision to hire personal chefs and other workers. "I'm going to spend that time working, and I can make three or four times what I am paying."

Precarious and low-paid

While these jobs are increasingly abundant, there's a downside. The pay is considerably lower than the typical U.S. job, and certainly lower than the manufacturing and office jobs once available to those without a college education. 

Wealth-work jobs typically pay an average of less than $36,000 per year, compared with the typical U.S. annual income of more than $50,000. And benefits and other forms of security are often lacking. That carries troubling implications in an economy where 2 of 3 adult workers lack a college degree, the Brookings experts note.

"If the fastest-growing segment of the non-college job market continues to revolve around menial tasks involving the care and feeding of the rich, it's hard to see how large numbers of workers will maintain decent livelihoods, accumulate skills to move into higher-paying employment, and retain their dignity and commitment to democracy," they wrote.

-- With reporting from the Associated Press.

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