Whenever companies start hiring freely again, job-seekers with specialized skills and education will have plenty of good opportunities. Others will face a choice: Take a job with low pay -- or none at all.
Job creation will likely remain weak for months or even years. But once employers do step up hiring, some economists expect job openings to fall mainly into two categories:
Professional fields with higher pay: lawyers, research scientists and software engineers, for instance.
Lower-skill and lower-paying jobs, like home healthcare aides and store clerks.
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And those in between? Their outlook is bleaker. Economists foresee fewer moderately paid factory supervisors, postal workers and office administrators.
That's the sobering message American workers face as they celebrate Labor Day at a time of high unemployment, scant hiring and a widespread loss of job security. Not until 2014 or later is the nation expected to have regained all, or nearly all, the 8.4 million jobs lost to the recession. Millions of lost jobs in real estate, for example, aren't likely to be restored this decade, if ever.
Even when the job market picks up, many people will be left behind. The threat stems in part from the economy's continuing shift from manufacturing to one fueled by service industries.
Pay for future service-sector jobs will tend to vary from very high to very low. At the same time, the number of middle-income service-sector jobs will shrink, according to government projections.
Any job that can be automated or outsourced overseas is likely to continue to decline.
The service-sector's growth could also magnify the nation's income inequality, with more people either affluent or financially squeezed.
The nation isn't educating enough people for the higher-skilled service-sector jobs of the future, economists say.
"There will be jobs," said Lawrence Katz, a Harvard economist. "The big question is what they are going to pay, and what kind of lives they will allow people to lead. This will be a big issue for how broad a middle class we are going to have."
On one point there's broad agreement: Of 8 million-plus jobs lost to the recession -- in fields like manufacturing, real estate and financial services -- many, perhaps most, aren't coming back.
In their place will be jobs in healthcare, information technology and statistical analysis.
Some of the new positions will require complex skills or higher education. Others won't, but they won't pay very much, either.
"Our occupational structure is really becoming bifurcated," said Richard Florida, a professor at the University of Toronto. "We're becoming more of a divided nation by the work we do."
The government forecasts a net total of 15.3 million new jobs by 2018. If that proves true, unemployment would drop far closer to a historical norm of 5 percent.