Idle times

Today’s new Bureau of Labor Statistics report reveals the instant cure for unemployment: Stop looking for work. I say that not as advice or to be callous, just to explain how it is that November’s meager job growth could coexist with a pretty sizable drop in the unemployment rate, from 9.0% to 8.6%.

Technically, the precise reason is that the low number of jobs added, 120,000 (which is well under the 210,000 needed to restore 5% unemployment in eight years) comes from the BLS’s survey of companies (the “establishment survey”), whereas the 8.6% number comes from its separate survey of households. But even in the household survey, the basic story is the same. The longstanding economic definition of unemployed is not merely “not employed” but “not employed yet actively looking for work.” And it looks like the bulk of the reduction in unemployment was from people who stopped looking.

In the household sample, total unemployment fell by 594,000, which looks great, except that employment grew by less than half that (278,000). “Not in the labor force” (i.e., not working and not looking) grew by much more (487,000). The labor force itself (employed plus unemployed) shrank by 315,000. It’s hard to blame people for giving up looking for work when there are currently 4.2 times as many unemployed as there are job vacancies. (The number was 1.8 when the recession began three years ago.)

Rather than focus on the official unemployment rate or broader measures like the U-6 unemployment rate (now 15.6%; includes discouraged job-seekers and involuntary part-timers), I prefer to focus on the employment-to-population ratio, which is a simpler measure that avoids messy distinctions (e.g., actively vs. passively looking for work vs. not looking at all but might take a job if offered). The employment-to-population ratio has hardly changed at all since September 2009, fluctuating narrowly around its current value of 58.5%. (By comparison, it was 62.0% at the worst of the 2001 recession hangover.)

One could wax metaphysical about work as a bourgeois construct and argue that people are finding spiritually rewarding alternatives to work, but that doesn’t seem to be the case for all that many people here. The BLS report shows that 6,595,000 adult Americans are currently not working and not looking but want to work now. That number (seasonally adjusted) has never been larger — not even at the trough of the recession in mid-2009 and not even when the unemployment rate was over 10%.

If the labor force keeps on shrinking, the official unemployment rate could fall fast, but that’s probably not how we want to get there.

UPDATE 3 DEC. 2011: Brad DeLong does the number crunching I was too lazy to do and produces a specific breakdown of how much of the unemployment rate decline came from labor force shrinkage (25 basis points, or 0.25 percentage points) and how much came from employment growth (15 basis points). So if nobody had left the labor force, the unemployment rate would have fallen to 8.85%.

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One Response to “Idle times”

  1. Mark E. Says:

    I like your unemployment figure even better than the U-6. I’ve pretty much been skeptical of the so-called drop in unemployment and this illustrates the situation perfectly. I would use it cautiously as a comparison along a long timeline whereas demographic shifts are concerned (% of elderly, children, etc.), but it works great toward comparing a matter of a few years.

    It seems more and more people are moving in with extended family and actually adjusting pretty well. Crows and other animals learned the benefits of this long ago. It’s a new way of life for us. I see this a trend that won’t reverse anytime soon…nor will true unemployment statistics.

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