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 35%, 25%, and $20 an Hour:

Demographics, Destiny, and the Great Evaporating American Middle

 Reading this morning about Walmart, and eight quarters in a row of comp-store declines.

 Reading last week about Sears Holding, with annual revenues down from $53B to $43B in five years.

 Reading recently about Gap Inc., with US sales down 32% since 2004 in its US Gap-branded stores.

 And – reading a few weeks ago (The Economist, 30 April) about the decline in employment among US men – blue collar men in particular.

 According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, the EOM April unemployment rate for US adult men was 8.8%.

 However (as The Economist points out), the unemployment rate for US 25-54 year olds without a high school diploma is nearly 35% – up from around 10% in the 1960s. Of those with a high school diploma  but no college, today’s unemployment rate is almost 25% – up from less than 5% in the 1960s.  

 The odds are that neither group will find work at pre-recession levels. In each of the past recessions, the percentage of poorly educated men in work has fallen sharply – and not recovered to prior levels economic expansion returns.  

 Or, if they do find work, the odds are that the job will pay less than before.  According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the percentage of workers at $20 or more-per-hour jobs in the United States – a wage rate equivalent to at least $41,600 per year – declined more than 20% from 1979 to 2007.

 Don’t get me wrong.   There are dozens of reasons why Walmart, Sears, and Gap Inc. are in the situation they’re in.

 But demographics is destiny.  

 As a retailer, you can change assortments, beat up vendors, and find new merchants.  You can open and close new formats and rapidly expand your presence on the internet.   God forbid, you can even hire consultants and change logos.

 But if the personality of your brand is irrevocably wedded to the great American middle, and that great American middle is evaporating before your eyes, there’s going to be a problem.

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