In this post I’ll take a closer look at the labor force participation rate (LFPR). Specifically, I will show that the Great Recession has had dreadful consequences for younger workers. The U.S. is on the verge of losing a generation of young adults who simply cannot find work and have given up looking. And, at the same time, I’ll debunk one widespread myth: that the LFPR is declining because baby boomers are retiring. In fact, a quick look at the data reveals exactly the opposite: the LFPRs for older workers are rising, not falling.
The graphs below were compiled from data at the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Curiously, the only data I could find on the participation rate did not go back very far. Luckily, the BLS provides breakdowns of both the civilian noninstitutional labor force and total population by age bracket all the way back to 1960. So, with the help of our old pal Mr. Excel™, we can grow our own participation rate. (As always, I value transparency. Click here to download the Excel workbook with all the data. For technical reasons, this file is in Excel 2007 format.)
Background on the Labor Force Participation Rate
If you’ve been reading this blog for a while you know that I’ve written about the labor force participation rate before. The definition is simple: the number of people in the labor force divided by total population. The major complicating factor is the definition of the labor force. To be in the labor force someone must be either employed or unemployed. They are counted as employed if they did any work for pay during the previous four weeks. This is complication number one: many people counted as employed have part-time jobs, but would like to have full-time jobs. The unemployed are those who did no work for pay during the previous four weeks and are actively seeking a job. Those who have given up looking for work are not part of the labor force. A significant increase in the number of these discouraged workers leads to a drop in the labor force participation rate.
The LFPR has been declining since the mid‑1990s. There was an uptick in the mid‑00’s. But today the LFPR is at the lowest level since 1988. This is important. People who are unemployed for an extended period have increasing difficulty obtaining jobs. Indeed, there is quite a bit of evidence that their working skills deteriorate. In general, the longer someone is out of work, the harder it becomes for them to find a job and, if successful, keep the job after returning to work. After we look at the data, I’ll summarize the research.
Before we get to the data, a word of warning. The vertical axes on the graphs have different scales. Since some groups have LFPRs in the neighborhood of 80% while others are down around 10%, I decided this was the best way to proceed. If you don’t like what I’ve done, download the Excel file and DIY.
Let’s begin by looking at the LFPR over the last 53 years.
The U.S. LFPR hit a low of about 54% in 1975, reflecting baby boomers into the population over age 16. So let’s look at what’s happened to the 16-24 age group:
This is where the catastrophe begins. Between 2000 and 2011 the LFPR for this group fell from about 66% to 55%. While I would like to believe this reflects more people going to college and even graduate school, I worry that is not the case. If this precipitous decline is being caused by people dropping out of the labor force because they cannot find work, we are condemning our youngest generation to an increased likelihood of reduced lifetime earnings.
Well, that’s depressing. Let’s look at ages 25 to 34:
The news here is a little better, but only a little. The LFPR has declined from 85% to about 81%. At least the decline isn’t as great as it is for younger workers. The next age group is 25-34:
That’s more like it. The age group 25-44 is actually doing pretty well. These are the folks who have jobs or are looking aggressively. What about 45-54?
Holding steady at about 82%.
Rather than discussing the last two groups individually, let’s look at both graphs:
Aha! People over age 54 are staying in the labor force longer. I should know — I’m one of them.
This is even more bad news Younger workers are dropping out of the labor force and, to a certain extent, they are being replaced by older workers hanging on to their jobs. This does not bode well for the future. Stay tuned to these pages. In the coming weeks I’ll look at the duration of unemployment broken down the same way.
Summary of the Economic Research
The most concise summary of the effects of long-term unemployment is from Aaronson, Mazumder, and Schechter (2010):
” As we entered 2010, the average length of an ongoing spell of unemployment in the United States was more than 30 weeks—the longest recorded in the post-World War II era. Remarkably, more than 4 percent of the labor force (that is, over 40 percent of those unemployed) were out of work for more than 26 weeks—we consider these workers to be long-term unemployed. In contrast, the last time unemployment reached 10 percent in the United States, in the early 1980s, the share of the labor force that was long-term unemployed peaked at 2.6 percent. Although there has been a secular rise in long‑term unemployment over the last few decades, the sharp increases that occurred during 2009 appear to be outside of historical norms. Further, this trend may present important implications for the aggregate economy and for macroeconomic policy going forward.
The private cost of losing a job can be sizable. In the short run, lost income is only partly offset by unemployment insurance (UI), making it difficult for some households to manage their financial obligations during spells of unemployment (Gruber, 1997; and Chetty, 2008). In the long run, permanent earnings losses can be large, particularly for those workers who have invested time and resources in acquiring knowledge and skills that are specific to their old job or industry (Jacobson, LaLonde, and Sullivan, 1993; Neal, 1995; Fallick, 1996; and Couch and Placzek, 2010). Health consequences can be severe (Sullivan and von Wachter, 2009). Research even suggests that job loss can lead to negative outcomes among the children of the unemployed (Oreopoulos, Page, and Stevens, 2008) and to an increase in crime (Fougère, Kramarz, and Pouget, 2009).
All of these costs are likely exacerbated as unemployment spells lengthen. The probability of finding a job declines as the length of unemployment increases. Although there is some debate as to exactly what this association reflects, it is certainly plausible that when individuals are out of work longer, their labor market prospects are diminished through lost job skills, depleted job networks, or stigma associated with a long spell of unemployment (Blanchard and Diamond, 1994). For risk-averse households that cannot insure completely against a fall in consumption as they deplete their precautionary savings, the welfare consequences of job loss rise as unemployment duration increases. Welfare implications are particularly severe during periods of high unemployment for individuals with little wealth (Krusell et al., 2008).”
Aaronson, D., B. Mazumder, and S. Schechter (2010), ” What is behind the rise in long-term unemployment?” Economic Perspectives, Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago, 2Q/2010, 23-51.
Blanchard, O. and P. Diamond (1994), ” Ranking, Unemployment Duration, and Wages.” Review of Economic Studies (1994) 61, 417-434.
Thomsen, Stephan L. (2009), “Explaining the Employability Gap of Short-Term and Long-Term Unemployed Persons.” Kyklos, August 2009, v. 62, iss. 3, pp. 448-78.
Ochsen, C. and H. Welsch (2011), “The Social Costs of Unemployment: Accounting for Unemployment Duration.” Applied Economics, November 2011, v. 43, iss. 25-27, pp. 3999-4005.
 For examples, see Thomsen, Stephan L (2009); Ochsen, C. and H. Welsch (2011); Blanchard, O., and P. Diamond (1994); and Aaronson, D., B. Mazumder, and S. Schechter (2010).
 Aaronson, et. al., op. cit., p. 23.