Why are we so nervous?

By Pat Regnier, Money Magazine senior editor

Is that a sword over your head? Yes, and it's an awfully sharp one, Democrats argue.

"Over the past 10 years, we've had something wonderful happen, which is huge productivity gains in the economy," says Gene Sperling, former economic adviser to President Bill Clinton, chatting in his cluttered office at the Council on Foreign Relations in D.C. "But if you compare the first five years with the second five years, it's a tale of two cities."

In the first half, the economy grew so hot that employers had to hire like crazy, which meant rising wages for Americans in the middle. Then real wages stalled for several years, even though workers' output and corporate profits kept rising. You'll no doubt notice that Sperling's timeline is suspiciously flattering of Democrats (though Clinton's embrace of free trade still infuriates the party's left).

Still, there are reasons for anxiety that liberals just aren't making up.

You face more competition.

A quarter-century ago, blue-collar workers got a nasty shock when they found themselves going head to head with manufacturers in Japan and South Korea. But that's nothing compared with the scale and pace of what's coming.

"Japan and South Korea are 3% of the global labor force," says Sperling. "China and India make up 40%. There is no precedent for this huge group of workers that through information technology can compete with American workers overnight."

Those new hands aren't all going to be set to building cars and toasters. They'll be engaged in what economists call "tradable services," which include any job that doesn't need to be done in person. New technology will expose more and more jobs, says Princeton economist and former Federal Reserve vice chairman Alan Blinder. "I can imagine down the road the technology will be good enough," says Blinder, "that on the stage where I lecture at Princeton there could be a hologram of a professor in India delivering the lecture for a tenth of my pay."

Your income is less reliable.

Jacob Hacker, a Yale political scientist and author of the book "The Great Risk Shift," dug into the data from a long-running survey that tracks the year-to-year income of thousands of families and found that more are taking big hits.

In 1970 the average American had a 7% chance of experiencing a 50% drop in family income; by 2002 it was a 17% chance.

There's more going on here than offshoring - such as jobs being supplanted by technology, the rise of two-income families and divorce, and the decline of unions.

Whatever the reasons, the results are scary: The child poverty rate is about 20% in any given year, but more than half of American children will fall below the poverty line for at least one year, Hacker notes.

These, remember, are the kids we'll all be counting on to keep the economy humming in a more competitive world.

Moreover, as job competition rises for college grads, so does income volatility. A 2005 study by economist Henry Farber, also of Princeton, found that the average college-educated person who loses a job earns 14% less on the next job.

"Middle-class Americans are facing much greater risks than they once were," says Hacker.

Your employer is rolling up the safety net.

Look at what's happened to what Hacker calls "our private welfare system." Today, 19% of workers with a retirement plan have all of it in a traditional pension, according to research from Boston College. Twenty years ago, that figure was 62%.

Instead, most of us with employer-sponsored plans have 401(k)s or something similar. We bear the burden of making sure to contribute enough and the risk of deciding where to invest.

And when we leave the company, our relationship is mostly over; it's our job to make the money we've saved last.

Meanwhile, companies are less likely to offer health benefits for retirees and are pushing workers they do insure to share more of the burden. The 47 million uninsured include 22 million with full-time jobs.

Market indexes are shown in real time, except for the DJIA, which is delayed by two minutes. All times are ET. Disclaimer LIBOR Warning: Neither BBA Enterprises Limited, nor the BBA LIBOR Contributor Banks, nor Reuters, can be held liable for any irregularity or inaccuracy of BBA LIBOR. Disclaimer. Morningstar: © 2014 Morningstar, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Disclaimer The Dow Jones IndexesSM are proprietary to and distributed by Dow Jones & Company, Inc. and have been licensed for use. All content of the Dow Jones IndexesSM © 2014 is proprietary to Dow Jones & Company, Inc. Chicago Mercantile Association. The market data is the property of Chicago Mercantile Exchange Inc. and its licensors. All rights reserved. FactSet Research Systems Inc. 2014. All rights reserved. Most stock quote data provided by BATS.
Market indexes are shown in real time, except for the DJIA, which is delayed by two minutes. All times are ET. Disclaimer LIBOR Warning: Neither BBA Enterprises Limited, nor the BBA LIBOR Contributor Banks, nor Reuters, can be held liable for any irregularity or inaccuracy of BBA LIBOR. Disclaimer. Morningstar: © 2014 Morningstar, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Disclaimer The Dow Jones IndexesSM are proprietary to and distributed by Dow Jones & Company, Inc. and have been licensed for use. All content of the Dow Jones IndexesSM © 2014 is proprietary to Dow Jones & Company, Inc. Chicago Mercantile Association. The market data is the property of Chicago Mercantile Exchange Inc. and its licensors. All rights reserved. FactSet Research Systems Inc. 2014. All rights reserved. Most stock quote data provided by BATS.