As good as it gets, and still lousy

The best that can be said about today’s BLS employment report is that it revealed 202,000 new jobs, which is in the right ballpark for how many jobs the economy needs to generate each month for the next eight years in order to get back to a normal unemployment rate. The bad news is that only 103,000 of those jobs are from last month. The other 99,000 are from revisions to July and August, which push those months’ net-new-jobs totals up to 127,000 and 57,000. So the average employment gain for the last three months is less than half of what we need to be on that eight-year recovery track.

It gets worse. Quoth the BLS: “Since April, payroll employment has increased by an average of 72,000 per month, compared with an average of 161,000 for the prior 7 months.” So now we’re down to about one-third of the needed monthly job creation to be on that eight-year recovery track.

NPR’s Planet Money reports that the job market is bad across all demographic groups, even the college educated. While college-educated people age 25 and over are the only group with an unemployment rate below 5%, the BLS historical tables show that the current rate (4.2%) is more than double what it was four years ago (2.0%). And the employment-to-population ratio of this group has fallen almost 3 percentage points (to 73.0%) over the same span.

The employment-to-population ratio is really where the worst news is. Even the expanded unemployment rates, which include discouraged job-seekers and/or involuntary part-timers, have shown some improvement over the past two years. But the improved unemployment rates seem to be entirely an artifact of people dropping out of the labor force. The labor force is actually slightly smaller today (154 million) than it was in mid-2009, at the trough of the recession. The economy has added about 1.6 million jobs since the employment trough of October 2009, but that hasn’t been been enough to keep pace with population. The current employment-to-population ratio (58.3%) is actually slightly lower than that of October 2009 (58.5%), even as the main unemployment rate has fallen from 10.1% to 9.1%.

Along those lines, the BLS’s “Alternate Measures of Labor Underutilization” are instructive. The official (U-3) unemployment rate counts only the jobless who say they are actually looking for a job. The U-4 unemployment rate includes “discouraged workers,” i.e., jobless people who are not looking but would take a job if one came along. The U-5 unemployment rate adds in “marginally attached workers,” who are a similar state of joblessness. Yet the U-5 unemployment rate (10.5%) is only 1.4 percentage points higher than the official rate, which suggests that most of the unemployed are either (1) still looking for work or (2) really not even thinking about it, i.e., have found life, or despair, or something,  outside the labor force.

The oft-cited U-6 unemployment rate, which is by far the highest, includes part-time workers who cannot get full-time work. This one is 16.5%, so most of the addition comes from the involuntary part-timers. So 6.0% of the labor force is involuntarily working part time. How does 6% compare with other times? The BLS data here go back only to 1994, so it’s hard to be definitive, but about 3% seems to be the norm. That’s what it was for most of 1994-2007, including even the recession and slow recovery of 2001-2003. That’s right — the involuntary-part-time employment rate is double what it was in the last recession and “jobless recovery.” It edged up to 4% in 2008, above 5% in 2009, reached 6% in September 2010 and has hovered around there ever since. That’s a lot of involuntary part-time jobs, and it adds another dimension of lousiness to the current depression. Also, if those are the kind of jobs this economy is creating, it’s no wonder that many people would rather hold onto their unemployment benefits, which, depending on their previous jobs, might pay more. But that’s a subject for another post.

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One Response to “As good as it gets, and still lousy”

  1. Mark E. Says:

    How does retirement factor in here? I know people are holding on to their jobs longer, but some people will retire with their pension benefits and work part time.

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