James Pethokoukis: Does Lower Labor Force Participation Mean the 5% US Unemployment Rate is a Phony Number?Posted: December 9, 2015
James Pethokoukis writes: The current 5% unemployment rate is half its worst level of the Great Recession. But the jobless rate would be 10.1% if the labor force participation rate — which feeds into the unemployment rate — were back at pre-recession levels. So what is the “real” unemployment rate? The other day, I quoted a new Goldman Sachs study on the LFPR issue:
What about the 3.6pp decline in the labor force participation rate since 2007? While it’s true that the unemployment rate would be much higher if participation had remained stable, we now believe most of the decline since that time should be considered structural. By far the largest contribution to the decline in participation has been an increase in retirees—mostly a natural consequence of the aging of the workforce. Rising disability rates—a trend mostly driven by demographics—and a tendency for young people to remain in school have also played a role.The remaining cyclical component is a relatively modest share of the labor force, and broadly captured by the U6 unemployment rate, in our view.
And n0w the San Francisco Fed offers a similar perspective:
First is the aging of the population. The baby boomers are entering retirement and people are living longer. Remember, the participation rate counts everyoneover 16, so my happily retired parents count as “out of the labor force,” even though, in their 80s, few people would still be working. Second is that younger people aren’t working as much as they used to. But this is partly because many have extended their education or gone back to school, and fewer are working when they’re there. Third is an increase in people deciding they’d rather have single-income families (Bureau of Labor Statistics 2007–2014). For whatever reason, they’ve traded a second paycheck for spending more time at home, whether it’s for child care, leisure, or simply that it’s a better lifestyle fit. Each of these groups is made up of people who are not working, but doing so for personal or demographic reasons. As their numbers swell, it will, obviously, push the participation rate down.
As for the area of concern, we’re emerging from the deepest, longest recession since the Great Depression. And it’s true that a lot of people did give up looking for work. A key indicator is the somewhat unfairly named “prime-age males” cohort, who are 25–54. This group has historically been a constant in the American workforce, but in the wake of the recession, its participation fell sharply. However, as the labor market has improved, that number has largely stabilized over the past two years, as has the overall participation rate.
The last factor to consider is whether there are people who will reenter the labor force and pull the participation rate back up. The “marginally attached” for instance, a group made up of people who are ready and able to work and who’ve searched for jobs in the past year but who aren’t currently looking. The assumption would reasonably be that this group is poised to return to the labor force. First off, these numbers have come down a lot, falling by over 12% in the past year alone. In addition, my staff has found that, over the past few years, their reentry rate back into the labor force has actually fallen. When you combine this with the aging workforce, it looks unlikely that participation will rise. This is supported by other research from both within and outside the Fed System (Stephanie Aaronson et al. 2014 and Krueger 2015). Overall, the evidence suggests that, even with a quite strong economy, we won’t see a significant number of people come back into the fold.
I italicized the bit about the prime-age workforce — and included the above chart — since that factors out the aging issue. The decline has generated, if not controversy, then at least some puzzlement. As Barclays has put it: “The uniquely American decline in the participation by working-age men and women puts the US in a long-standing contrast to Japan, Germany, and the UK, and is hard to explain on cyclical grounds, because it predated the 2008-09 recession to which, anyway, the other countries were also exposed. … And it leaves the US with a 2014 participation rate that is quite low by international comparison.”
Lots of theories. Some economists suggest nearly a third of that relative decline is due to...(read more)