MINNEAPOLIS — A business degree and a decade of negotiating information technology contracts didn't prepare Denise Sjoberg for workdays changing diapers, comforting crying toddlers and negotiating nap times.
But then, she's not the only middle-class American adapting in tough times.
Sjoberg, who holds an MBA, was laid off in 2009. When the 49-year-old mother of three teenagers couldn't find a job in her profession, she opened a licensed day-care center out of her home in Eagan, Minn.
Today, she makes $13,000 less per year, thinks twice before going out to eat and won't take a big vacation any time soon. "You don't compare what you had with what you're going to have next," Sjoberg said.
Across the country, household incomes have been falling for a decade, a dip accelerated by the Great Recession and profoundly felt by the middle class. From 2007 to 2010, the median household yearly income nationwide fell from $52,823 to $49,445.
The recession upended a fundamental assumption of middle-class life — the belief that most working families can count on earning a little more than the year before.
"All of those rules you had about how the world operates, they're all gone," said Tom Gillaspy, Minnesota's demographer.
The 8 million jobs lost to the recession cemented a decade of declining income. Roughly 60 percent of job losses fell disproportionately on midwage hourly positions, according to the National Employment Law Project.
As a result, wage growth has been slower the past two years than at any time over the past 30 years, the Economic Policy Institute says. Most economists do not expect a swift reversal, even as the economy shows signs of strengthening.
That leaves many middle-class Americans in the midst of a vast recalculation — about careers, lifestyles, homes and retirement. They must reassess what they value and how they define success. It means frugal living, postponing retirement and retraining if they want to restart their careers.
"They have to recalibrate what they can expect," said Russell Price, an Ameriprise Financial economist.
Many in the middle class who never lost their jobs are still struggling with declining incomes.
Wendy and George Vyskocil of Otsego, Minn., managed to hold onto their jobs during the recession — she as a medical transcriptionist, he as a union heavy equipment operator. But they now make about $60,000 a year, a little more than half of what they once earned.
"My husband has only worked four months in each of the last two years," said Wendy Vyskocil, who once made $45,000 a year but now makes $28,000 after pay cuts.
The couple are "mad, sad and frustrated," as they have retooled their lifestyles to get by. They shop at bargain stores and do much of their own auto and home repairs. They trade do-it-yourself skills in a sort of barter system with family and friends.
If George Vyskocil doesn't get work in the next two months, the couple will have to try to renegotiate their obligations. Even if their income returns to where it was, their spending habits will not.
"We won't just live within our means," Wendy Vyskocil said. "I want a financial cushion of at least six months in case this ever happens again."
Such hard lessons are playing out across the country, as a broad range of middle-wage jobs disappeared during the recession, and the sluggish recovery hasn't brought enough of them back. In fact, the highest rate of job growth has been among lower-income positions.
"People who lost their jobs during the downturn have gotten hit really hard," said Heidi Shierholz, an economist with the Economic Policy Institute.
Many workers who were laid off haven't fully recovered, even after being rehired, Shierholz said. When they got a new full-time job, the wage was 10.5 percent lower than their previous salary in 2010.
Tom Sparks, 56, was unemployed for only a few weeks during the recession, but at times he has worked three jobs to support his three daughters. During those stretches, a typical workday would start at 1:45 a.m., when he would distribute newspapers, followed by an 11-hour shift selling mattresses. Then he would deliver mattresses after hours for extra cash.
It still was not enough to replace roughly $15,000 a year in lost commissions because of the downturn. "A mattress is (a purchase) you can put on the back burner," he noted.
At one point, Sparks says, he was close to bankruptcy but managed to downsize. He consolidated his credit card debt and bought a foreclosed townhouse. Now, as his commissions begin to rise, so do his spirits.
"People are buying mattresses again," he said. "I think there's light at the end of the tunnel."
People in the middle class with college degrees are doing better than those with high school diplomas. But neither education nor previous career experience guarantees success in the today's jobs market.
The numbers remain daunting. Nationwide, 6 million more people are unemployed than at the start of the recession — four jobless Americans for every available job.
Demographic shifts could lead to better days for the middle class. Several economists believe that the pool of new workers will shrink in the next decade while job openings will increase as baby boomers retire. This should create more opportunities.
But that depends on a workforce trained for the future.
"We think if we give kids two years of algebra we're preparing them for college," Gillaspy said. "We're not even training them to be production workers."