About The Authors

Friday, May 5, 2017

LF Participation: Improvement Continues

Mike Smitka, Economics
Washington and Lee University

...how many older workers can be enticed back into the labor market?...

Rather than headline unemployment rate I follow participation rates because so many would-be workers dropped out of the labor market during the Great Recession. In a couple age brackets we've now returned to normal as judged by the pre-recession average, which was roughly flat over the period 2000-2006. The black line is a moving average, which means that it lags as participation increases. The raw average is now at 99%, but bounces around a lot from month to month. I'm thus conservative in how I approach the data. While I do not correct for this (I don't have age-specific data) the share of the labor force working involuntary short hours is down to 3.3% from a Great Recession peak of 6.0%. Some of this improvement thus includes a transition from part-time to full-time work. It's taken 7 years, which means a lot of personal pain and sidetracked careers. But most of the slack in labor markets has now disappeared.

Of course these data are national averages, so there will be a lot of local variation. One caution: participation by older workers at near historic highs. The aging of the baby boomers means there are many people wanting jobs who a generation ago would have been fully retired. How many of them can be enticed back into the labor market? We'll find out over the next couple years. In the meantime, if labor markets really are tightening, then we should start to find employers offering higher wages to attract and retain workers, first on a regional level, then nationally. I however don't follow those data. I need to start reading the Federal Reserve Beige Book, which provides the qualitative impressions of Fed staff in each of its 12 districts.