As the most widely reported rate of unemployment (U-3) has fallen in recent months, people with a political agenda served by painting a rosy picture of the recovery have made considerable noise about this decrease. Their political opponents have responded that one reason for the decline is that the labor force has fallen as more people have given up looking for work, some of them going into retirement sooner than they would have if the labor market had been more robust.
The best way to avoid the parsing and cherry-picking that plague such debates is to look not at unemployment, but at employment. After all, it’s employment that contributes to the production of goods and services and generates earnings for the job holders. Employment is less subject to interpretive ambiguity than unemployment is.
The most recently reported data on private nonfarm employment, for January 2012, show that employment has indeed continued its recovery. Since reaching its current-recession trough about two years ago, it has increased by about 3 million persons. Before starting a celebration, however, we should recognize that private nonfarm employment is still about 5 million persons less than it was at its pre-recession peak in 2008.
Moreover, such private employment is currently more than a million persons less than it was in December 2000, more than eleven years ago, on the eve of the dot-com bust.
So, at this point, we have suffered more than the proverbial “lost decade” in the private labor market—the one in which employees are hired to produce goods and services that consumers and investors have demonstrated they actually value (or for which producers are convinced that such demand will be forthcoming).
To be sure, labor productivity has increased during this period, yet the likelihood is slight that sustained economic growth can take place in the future without long-term growth in private employment. A very large recession-related loss of private employment remains to be recouped, however, before we can even begin to think about the long-term growth of employment. The situation has improved somewhat in the past two years, no doubt, yet the labor market has a long way to go—it has about 5/8 of its recent loss to make up—merely to get back to its pre-recession peak.
Addendum I: Some recent survey evidence on why small businesses are not hiring.
Although such evidence must always be interpreted with extreme care, giving due attention to how the questions are framed, what the sampling design is, and so forth, it seems clear that uncertainties related to the future costs of Obamacare and other regulations are a significant factor in deterring hiring. Note, too, that when businesses are not hiring because they do not foresee sufficient demand to justify expanding their payroll, this reason may also reflect indirectly the effect of regime uncertainty, which may depress demands by the surveyed small businesses’ potential customers.
Addendum II: U.S. population grew by 9.7 percent between 2000 and 2010. In recent decades the annual rate of growth has averaged approximately 1 percent per year.