Research-To-Practice Brief

Dreams Deferred: Downward Mobility and Making Ends Meet in the Service Sector

Nearly one in five jobs in the United States are in the service sector, including in retail, grocery, pharmacy, fast food, and fulfillment, but there are countervailing views on who works these jobs and to what end. One assumption is that service sector employment is dominated by workers who are temporarily in this line of work and using it as a source of extra income or as a first rung on a ladder towards career growth and economic opportunity. The alternative belief is that service sector workers rely on this work to get by in supporting their families, and that these jobs may be more poverty traps than mobility ladders. This Shift Project brief draws on data from surveying 2,601 workers in these sectors to examine their experiences of material hardship, economic security, and their expectations for future upward mobility, and how job quality shapes those forecasts. This data provides an unprecedented view into the personal histories, economic realities, and career trajectories of service sector workers.

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