The monthly jobs report showed Friday that the U.S. economy gained 209,000 jobs in July. That's a decrease from the 298,000 added in June, but the overall trend still suggests the economy's on a slow but steady jobs recovery.
Still, when it comes to jobs in the U.S., the question is not just of quantity but quality. And in the quality department, there's a long way to go. Average wages are growing at about 2 percent a year, barely enough to keep up with inflation.
Stagnating wages aren't that surprising in an economy slowly plodding out of recession, where there aren't enough jobs to go around and the number of long-term unemployed Americans has stalled at 3.2 million.
"If you're an employer, you've got many applicants for a job. Some people have been out of work for quite some time and are quite desperate," says Joshua Shapiro, chief U.S. economist at MFR, a financial consulting firm. That means employers "don't have to bid up wages to attract qualified people," Shapiro says.
Sure, wages are still growing fairly rapidly in some specialized fields like computer programming or engineering, which face a shortage of skilled workers. But wages are not accelerating for the "the broad, garden-variety worker," Shapiro says.
Wage growth should eventually accelerate, at least a little, if the economy continues to add jobs and labor markets tighten. But, beyond those supply and demand dynamics, there are deeper forces working against wage growth that got started long before the great recession, including the declining power of unions and the increasingly globalized economy.
"The sheltered economy that the U.S. had after World War II, which allowed us to have high wages and high benefits, is now being tamped down by countries with cheaper wages competing against American manufacturers," says Joseph Blasi, a professor of management at Rutgers University.
It's not just manufacturing that's feeling the pressures of globalization. Companies are increasingly outsourcing white-collar jobs like paralegals and architectural draftsmen. Meanwhile, many of the service jobs that still can't be sent overseas — like stocking shelves or flipping hamburgers — have traditionally paid low wages to begin with.
Damon Silvers, policy director for the AFL-CIO, says workers in those industries have started to demand higher wages but are struggling with confidence.
"Decades of anti-worker policies, and on top of that a profound economic crisis, have really put American workers through an experience of powerlessness," Silvers says. "Everything you see going on right now, in terms of worker protests at Walmart, at fast foods, even those people kind of want to know: is this going to work?"
One way or another, says Shapiro, we should all hope that wages will rise eventually for workers. "Because that's who buys stuff."
And buying stuff is what ultimately keeps our economy running.