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April 10, 2014

Reasons for the Decline in Prime-Age Labor Force Participation

As a follow up to this post on recent trends in labor force participation, we look specifically at the prime-age group of 25- to 54-year-olds. The participation decisions of this age cohort are less affected by the aging population and the longer-term trend toward lower participation of youths because of rising school enrollment rates. In that sense, they give us a cleaner window on responses of participation to changing business cycle conditions.

The labor force participation rate of the prime-age group fell from 83 percent just before the Great Recession to 81 percent in 2013. The participation rate of prime-age males has been trending down since the 1960s. The participation rate of women, which had been rising for most of the post-World War II period, appears to have plateaued in the 1990s and has more recently shared the declining pattern of participation for prime-age men. But the decline in participation for both groups appears to have accelerated between 2007 and 2013 (see chart 1).

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We look at the various reasons people cite for not participating in the labor force from the monthly Current Population Survey. These reasons give us some insight into the impact of changes in employment conditions since 2007 on labor force participation. The data on those not in the official labor force can be broken into two broad categories: those who say they don't currently want a job and those who say they do want a job but don't satisfy the active search criteria for being in the official labor force. Of the prime-age population not in the labor force, most say they don't currently want a job. At the end of 2007, about 15 percent of 25- to 54-year-olds said they didn't want a job, and slightly fewer than 2 percent said they did want a job. By the end of 2013, the don't-want-a-job share had reached nearly 17 percent, and the want-a-job share had risen to slightly above 2 percent (see chart 2).

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Prime-Age Nonparticipation: Currently Want a Job
Most of the rise in the share of the prime-age population in the want-a-job category is due to so-called marginally attached individuals—they are available and want a job, have looked for a job in the past year, but haven't looked in the past four weeks—especially those who say they are not currently looking because they have become discouraged about job-finding prospects (see the blue and orange lines of chart 3). In 2013, there were about 1.1 million prime-age marginally attached individuals compared to 0.7 million in 2007, and the prime-age marginally attached accounted for about half of all marginally attached in the population.

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The marginally attached are aptly named in the sense that they have a reasonably high propensity to reenter the labor force—more than 40 percent are in the labor force in the next month and more than 50 percent are in the labor force 12 months later (see chart 4). This macroblog post discusses what the relative stability in the flow rate from marginally attached to the labor force means for thinking about the amount of slack labor resources in the economy.

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Prime-Age Nonparticipation: Currently Don't Want a Job
As chart 2 makes evident, the vast majority of the rise in prime-age nonparticipation since 2009 is due to the increase in those saying they do not currently want a job. The largest contributors to the increase are individuals who say they are too ill or disabled to work or who are in school or training (see the orange and blues lines in chart 5).

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Those who say they don't want a job because they are disabled have a relatively low propensity to subsequently (re)enter the labor force. So if the trend of rising disability persists, it will put further downward pressure on prime-age participation. Those who say they don't currently want a job because they are in school or training have a much greater likelihood of (re)entering the labor force, although this tendency has declined slightly since 2007 (see chart 6).

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Note that the number of people in the Current Population Survey citing disability as the reason for not currently wanting a job is not the same as either the number of people applying for or receiving social security disability insurance. However, a similar trend has been evident in overall disability insurance applications and enrollments (see here).

Some of the rise in the share of prime-age individuals who say they don't want a job could be linked to erosion of skills resulting from prolonged unemployment or permanent changes in the composition of demand (a different mix of skills and job descriptions). It is likely that the rise in share of prime-age individuals not currently wanting a job because they are in school or in training is partly a response to the perception of inadequate skills. The increase in recent years is evident across all ages until about age 50 but is especially strong among the youngest prime-age individuals (see chart 7).

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But lack of required skills is not the only plausible explanation for the rise in the share of prime-age individuals who say they don't currently want a job. For instance, the increased incidence of disability is partly due to changes in the age distribution within the prime-age category. The share of the prime-age population between 50 and 54 years old—the tail of the baby boomer cohort—has increased significantly (see chart 8).

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This increase is important because the incidence of reported disability within the prime-age population increases with age and has become more common in recent years, especially for those older than 45 (see chart 9).

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Conclusions
The health of the labor market clearly affects the decision of prime-age individuals to enroll in school or training, apply for disability insurance, or stay home and take care of family. Discouragement over job prospects rose during the Great Recession, causing many unemployed people to drop out of the labor force. The rise in the number of prime-age marginally attached workers reflects this trend and can account for some of the decline in participation between 2007 and 2009.

But most of the postrecession rise in prime-age nonparticipation is from the people who say they don't currently want a job. How much does that increase reflect trends established well before the recession, and how much can be attributed to the recession and slow recovery? It's hard to say with much certainty. For example, participation by prime-age men has been on a secular decline for decades, but the pace accelerated after 2007—see here for more discussion.

Undoubtedly, some people will reenter the labor market as it strengthens further, especially those who left to undertake additional training. But for others, the prospect of not finding a satisfactory job will cause them to continue to stay out of the labor market. The increased incidence of disability reported among prime-age individuals suggests permanent detachment from the labor market and will put continued downward pressure on participation if the trend continues. The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that the prime-age participation rate will stabilize around its 2013 level. Given all the contradictory factors in play, we think this projection should have a pretty wide confidence interval around it.

Note: All data shown are 12-month moving averages to emphasize persistent shifts in trends.

Melinda PittsBy Melinda Pitts, director, Center for Human Capital Studies,

John RobertsonJohn Robertson, a vice president and senior economist in the Atlanta Fed's research department, and

Ellyn TerryEllyn Terry, a senior economic analyst in the Atlanta Fed's research department

April 10, 2014 in Business Cycles, Employment, Labor Markets | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

April 08, 2014

A Closer Look at Post-2007 Labor Force Participation Trends

Introduction
The rate of labor force participation (the share of the civilian noninstitutionalized population aged 16 and older in the labor force) has declined significantly since 2007. To what extent were the Great Recession and tepid recovery responsible?

In this post and one that will follow, we offer a series of charts using data from the Current Population Survey to explore some of the possible reasons behind the 2007–13 drop in participation. This first post describes the impact of the changing-age composition of the population and changes in labor force participation within specific age cohorts—see Calculated Risk posts here and here for a related treatment, and also this recent BLS study. The next post will look at the issue of potential cyclical impacts on participation by examining the behavior of the prime-age population.

Putting the decline in context
After rising from the mid-1960s through 1990, the overall labor force participation rate was relatively stable between 1990 and 2007. But participation has declined sharply since 2007. By 2013, participation was at the lowest level since 1978 (see chart 1).

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For men, the longer-term declining trend of participation accelerated after 2007. For women, after having been relatively stable since the late 1990s, participation began to decline after 2009. The decline for both males and females since 2009 was similar (see chart 2).

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The impact of retirement
One of the most important features of labor force participation is that it varies considerably over the life cycle: the rate of participation is low among young individuals, peaks during the prime-age years of 25 to 54, and then declines (see chart 3). So a change in the age distribution of the population can result in a significant change in overall labor force participation.

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The age distribution of the population has been shifting outward for some time. This is a result of the so-called baby boomer generation—that is, people born between 1946 and 1964 (see chart 4). The oldest baby boomers turned 62 in 2008 and became eligible for Social Security retirement benefits.

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At the same time the age distribution of the population has shifted out, the rate of retirement of older Americans has been declining. Retirement rates have generally been drifting down since the early 2000s (see chart 5). The decline in age-specific retirement rates has resulted in rising age-specific labor force participation rates. For example, from 1999 to 2013, the share of 62-year-old retirees declined from 38 percent to 28 percent. The BLS projects that this trend will continue at a similar pace in coming years (see table 3 of the BLS report).

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Although the decline in the propensity to retire has put some upward pressure on overall labor force participation, that effect is dominated by the sheer increase in the number of people reaching retirement age. The net result has been a steep rise in the share of the population saying they are not in the labor force because they are retired (see chart 6).

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Participation by age group
Individuals aged 16–24
The labor force participation rate for young individuals (between 16 and 24 years old) has been generally declining since the late 1990s. After slowing in the mid-2000s, the decline accelerated again during the Great Recession. However, participation has been relatively stable since 2009 (see chart 7). Nonetheless, the BLS projects that the participation rate for 16- to 24-year-olds will decline further, albeit at a slower pace than it declined between 2000 and 2009, and will fall a little below 50 percent by 2022.

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The change in participation among young people can be attributed almost entirely to enrollment rates in education programs (see here) and lower labor force participation among enrollees (see chart 8). The change in the share of 16- to 24-year-olds who say they don't currently want a job because they are in school closely matches the change in labor force participation for the entire cohort.

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Individuals aged 25–54 (prime age)
Generally, people aged 25 to 54 are the group most likely to be participating in the labor market (see chart 3). These so-called prime-age individuals are less likely to be making retirement decisions than older individuals, and less likely to be enrolled in schooling or training than younger individuals.

However, the prime-age labor force participation rate declined considerably between 2007 and 2013, and at a much faster pace than had been seen in the years prior to the recession (see chart 9). Reflective of the overall gender-specific participation differences seen in chart 2, the decline in prime-age female participation did not take hold until after 2009, and since 2009 the decline in both prime-age male and female participation has been quite similar. Nevertheless, the BLS projects that prime-age participation will stabilize in coming years and prime-age participation in 2022 will be close to its 2013 level.

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Implications
The BLS projects that participation by age group will look like this in 2022 relative to 2013 (see chart 10).

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Participation by youths is projected to continue to fall. The participation of older workers is projected to increase, but it will remain significantly lower than that of the prime-age group. Combined with an age distribution that has also continued to shift outward (see chart 11), the overall participation rate is expected to decline over the next several years from its 2013 level of around 63.3 percent. From the BLS study:

A combination of demographic, structural, and cyclical factors has affected the overall labor force participation rate, as well as the participation rates of specific groups, in the past. BLS projects that, as has been the case for the last 10 years or so, these factors will exert downward pressure on the overall labor force participation rate over the 2012–2022 period and the rate will gradually decline further, to 61.6 percent in 2022.

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However, an important assumption in the BLS projection is that the post-2007 decline in prime-age participation will not persist. Indeed, the data for the first quarter of 2014 does suggest that some stabilization has occurred.

But separating what is trend from what is cyclical is challenging. The rapid pace of the decline in participation among the prime-age population between 2007 and 2013 is somewhat puzzling. Could this decline reflect a temporary cyclical effect or something more permanent? A follow-up blog will explore this question in more detail using the micro data from the Current Population Survey.

Note: All data shown are 12-month moving averages to emphasize persistent shifts in trends.

 

Melinda PittsBy Melinda Pitts, director, Center for Human Capital Studies,

John RobertsonJohn Robertson, a vice president and senior economist in the Atlanta Fed's research department, and

Ellyn TerryEllyn Terry, a senior economic analyst in the Atlanta Fed's research department

April 8, 2014 in Business Cycles, Employment, Unemployment | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

March 18, 2014

Human Capital Topics Now Searchable

A little more than a week ago, all eyes were on the February Employment Situation report released by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The Establishment Survey surprised on the upside: nonfarm payrolls rose 175,000 in February, and payrolls were revised upward for December and January. The Household Survey indicated that the unemployment rate edged up slightly to 6.7 percent in February from 6.6 percent the prior month, and the labor force participation rate held steady at 63.0 percent.

These are some of the facts on the table as the Federal Open Market Committee meets today and tomorrow and, judging from recent comments from the folks who will be at that meeting, those facts (and more like them) will be very much front of mind.

These days, multiple tools are available to assist both casual and expert observers in navigating the rich and sometimes baffling story of labor markets in the post-Great Recession world. Just last week, you could find a new "Guide for the Perplexed" on labor market slack in The New York Times and an interactive feature on the "Eight Different Faces of the Labor Market" at the New York Fed's Liberty Street Economics blog. And that's not to mention the most recent update of the Atlanta Fed’s own 13-headed Labor Market Spider Chart.

All of these contributions reflect a great deal of effort to understand the story of what's happening in labor markets. As part of that effort, our colleagues across the Federal Reserve System have been taking deeper dives into employment statistics and reaching out into their communities to get a better understanding of labor force dynamics and workforce development issues. This research can be found on the various Reserve Bank and Board websites.

To facilitate access to that work, the Atlanta Fed's Center for Human Capital Studies has worked to bring those resources together in the Federal Reserve Human Capital Compendium (HCC). We are pleased to announce that we have recently enhanced the HCC so you can perform simple or advanced searches that allow you to research whatever facet of that research strikes your fancy (see the figure):

We encourage you to take your own deeper dive into the latest research across the Federal Reserve System by browsing the HCC or searching out those labor topics that have piqued your interest lately.

Photo of Whitney MancusoBy Whitney Mancuso, a senior economic analyst in the Atlanta Fed's research department

March 18, 2014 in Employment, Labor Markets, Unemployment | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

March 07, 2014

Thinking About Progress in the Labor Market

Today's employment report for the month of February maybe took a bit of drama out of one key question going into the next meeting of the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC): What will happen to the FOMC's policy language when the economy hits or passes the 6.5 percent unemployment rate threshold for considering policy-rate liftoff? With the unemployment rate for February checking it at 6.7 percent, a breach of the threshold clearly won't have happened when the Committee meets in a little less than two weeks.

I say "maybe took a bit of drama out" because I'm not sure there was much drama left. All you had to do was listen to the Fed talkers yesterday to know that. This is from the highlights summary of a speech yesterday by Charles Plosser, president of the Philadelphia Fed...

President Plosser believes the Federal Open Market Committee has to revamp its current forward guidance regarding the future federal funds rate path because the 6.5 percent unemployment threshold has become irrelevant.

... and this from a Wall Street Journal interview with William Dudley, president of the New York Fed:

Mr. Dudley, in a Wall Street Journal interview, also said the Fed's 6.5% unemployment rate threshold for considering increases in short-term interest rates is "obsolete" and he would advocate scrapping it at the Fed's next meeting March 18–19.

From our shop, Atlanta Fed president Dennis Lockhart echoed those sentiments in a speech at Georgetown University:

Given that measured unemployment is so close to 6.5 percent, the time is approaching for a refreshed explanation of how unemployment or broader employment conditions are to be factored into a liftoff decision.

That statement doesn't mean we in Atlanta are disregarding the unemployment rate altogether. We have for some time been describing the broader net we have cast in fishing for labor market clues. One important aspect of that broader perspective is captured in the so-called U-6 measure of unemployment, about which President Lockhart's speech gives a quick tutorial:

The data used to construct the unemployment rate come from a survey of households conducted by the Census Bureau for the Bureau of Labor Statistics. To be counted as a participant in the labor force, a respondent must give rather specific qualifying answers to questions in the survey...

Those who are available, have looked for work in the past year, but have not recently looked for work are labeled "marginally attached." They are not in the official labor force, so they are not officially unemployed. You might say they are a "shadow labor force"...

One measure that counts the marginally attached in the pool of the unemployed is U-6.

U-6 also includes working people who identify themselves as working "part time for economic reasons." These are people who want to work full time (defined as 35 hours or more) but are able only to get fewer than 35 hours of work.

The "shadow labor force" comment is based on these observations. First, in President Lockhart's words:

The makeup of the class of marginally attached workers is quite fluid. About 40 percent of the marginally attached in any given month join the official labor force in the subsequent month.

There is no new story there. The frequency with which people move from marginally attached to in the labor force has been stable for quite a while (see the chart):


President Lockhart's second observation regarding the marginally attached is more important:

But only about 10 percent of those who move into the labor force find a job right away. In effect, they went from unofficially unemployed to officially unemployed.

The chart below depicts this observation:


Relative to before the Great Recession, the frequency with which people transitioned from marginally attached to employment has fallen by about 5 percentage points.

That decline is related to this conclusion (again from President Lockhart):

Here's my point: what U-6 captures matters. Measures such as marginally attached and part time for economic reasons became elevated in the recession and have not come down materially. Said differently, broader measures of unemployment like U-6 suggest that a significant level of slack remains in our employment markets.

It is not that we have failed to see progress in the U-6 measure of labor market slack. In fact, since the end of the recession, the U-6 unemployment rate has declined about in tandem with the standard official unemployment rate (designated U-3 by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics; see the chart):


What is the case is that we have failed to undo the outsized run-up in the marginally attached and people working part-time for economic reasons that occurred during the recession (see the chart):


One interpretation of these observations is that the relative increase in U-6 represents structural changes that cannot be fixed by policies aimed at stimulating spending. But we are drawn to the fact, described above, that the marginally attached are flowing into the labor market at the same pace as before the recession, but they are finding jobs at a much slower pace, making us hesitant to fully embrace a structural interpretation.

Or, as our boss said yesterday:

As a policymaker, I am concerned about the unemployed in the official labor force, but I am also concerned about the unemployed in the shadow labor force. To get close to full employment, as I think of it, would involve substantial absorption of this shadow labor force. I do not think we're near that point yet. This is one of the reasons I support continuing with a highly accommodative policy and deferring liftoff for a while longer.

But if you are looking for some good news, here it is: Though the official unemployment rate has been essentially flat for the past three months, the broader U-6 measure that we are monitoring closely has fallen by half a percentage point. More of that, and we will really be getting somewhere.

Photo of Dave AltigBy Dave Altig, research director and executive vice president at the Atlanta Fed


March 7, 2014 in Employment, Labor Markets, Unemployment | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)