Category Archives: labor markets

17/4/21: Collapsing Labor Force Participation: A Secular Trend


For those of you following this blog this would be a familiar sight: I have been worrying about the underlying structure of the U.S. labor markets for some time now. The ongoing recovery appears to be relatively robust in terms of headline figures, e.g. GDP growth rates and declining continued unemployment claims. But in reality, it has been nothing but the return to trends that persisted before the pandemic - trends that are extremely worrying.

I covered the fact that longer term unemployment has now gone through the roof: And beyond this, there is a bigger problem of historically low levels of labor force participation. We are witnessing a massive pull-away within the skills distribution in the U.S. economy: there are shortages of skilled labor, including in manufacturing, and there is massive outflow of people from the labor markets in lower skills groups.

Just look at the absolute disaster of the 'recovery' when it comes to people who have left the workforce alltogether:

And consider the gender mix in this: 

1. Women labor force participation is down:

2. Men participation has collapsed:

The above appears to show more benign trend in female labor force participation trend than in male, and... here comes the kicker: women labor force participation currently sits around the levels comparable to 1987; men - at around ... well... never.

The above table puts matters into perspective: the gap between the pandemic period and prior high participation period is almost 5 times larger for men than for women. But... the gap between women and men participation rates in the pandemic period and pre-pandemic period is much smaller: at roughly 48% higher for men than for women. For the latest data point (March 2021) the latter gap is roughly 80%. In other words, the dynamics in terms of labor force participation for women are becoming much less benign, relative to men. than they were during the pre-pandemic period.

To put this into a different perspective: secular pre-pandemic trend for men were woeful. They were less so for women. But pandemic is accelerating longer term pressures on both men and women in pushing them out of the labor force.

If you think this is a 'robust' recovery, you really need to think a bit harder: we are having a secular stagnation in the female labor force and we are having a long term depression in the male labor force. And these trends are not subject to demographics of aging. 

14/4/21: The share of those in unemployment > 27 weeks is rising


One way to look at the state of the real (as opposed to financialized and corporate-value focused) economy is to look at unemployment. And one of the strongest indicators of longer term changes in the structure of the real economy is the fate of the longer term unemployed. Here is an interesting snapshot of data: the percentage of those unemployed for 27 week or longer in the total pool of the unemployed. The higher the number, the more structural is the unemployment problem. 

If the above is not clear enough, here is the same data expressed in the form of the range for each 12 months period (rolling) between maximum share of the longer term unemployed in the overall pool of unemployment and the minimum share:

All of the above suggests we are in deep trouble. And this trouble has been persistent since the Great Recession: we are witnessing a dramatic increase in the duration of unemployment spells. Part of this is due to the impact of Covid19 pandemic concentrated in specific sectors. Part of this is down to the generosity of unemployment benefits supplements and direct subsidies during the pandemic. Part of it is also down to the longer term changes in the U.S. labor markets and changes in households' composition and investment/consumption patterns.

Irrespective of the causes, the problem is obvious: the longer the person remains unemployed, the sharper is the depreciation of skills and their employability. If this (post-2008) experience is the 'new normal', America is developing a massive class of disillusioned and human capital poor workers. 

2/4/21: U.S. labor force participation and employment to population ratio


In the previous post, I covered U.S. continued unemployment claims:, noting that decreases in unemployment counts are, in part, driven by workers dropping off unemployment rolls due to exits from the workforce and/or expirations of unemployment benefits. Here is the data on U.S. labor force participation rates and employment to population ratio through March 2021:

Things are still ugly when it comes to these two measures of labor markets health in the U.S: 

  • Latest reading for U.S. labor force participation rate at 61.5 is just a notch up on February's 61.3, but is unchanged on November 2020. Pandemic period average labor force participation rate is woefully low at 61.7, which is still higher than March 2021 reading. March reading is equivalent to the average reading for the decade of the 1970s which was marked by stagflation and high unemployment.
  • Latest reading for U.S. employment to population ratio is at 57.7 - an improvement on February reading of 57.3, and better than the pandemic period average of 56.9, but still comparable to the levels seen only in the early 1980s. 
Both metrics show the brutal nature of the current labor markets, where demand for skills is rising, including in manufacturing, while services jobs (and lower-skilled B2C services jobs in particular) are still hard to find.

4/2/21: U.S. Labor Markets: America’s Scariest Charts, Part 2

In the previous post, I covered the first set of data - Continued Unemployment Claims ( - that highlights the plight of American economy in the current crisis. Now, let's take a look at Labor Force Participation rate and Employment to Population ratio:

The chart and the table above highlight continued serious problems in the structure of the U.S. labor markets. While official continued unemployment claims are inching back toward some sort of a 'norm', much of so-called improvement in unemployment dynamics is actually accounted for by the dire state of labor force participation which is still trending below anything one might consider reasonable. Current labor force participation rate is 61.5 which is well below anything seen before the onset of the pandemic in March 2020. By a mile below. And in terms of historical perspectives, we have no modern recession (from 1980 onwards) that matches these lows of labor force participation. Structurally, this means that instead of gaining jobs, the unemployed simply roll off the cliff of unemployment assistance and drop out of the labor force, discouraged by the lack of meaningful decent jobs in the market. 

Employment to population ratio is a little better, but it is still stuck below pre-pandemic levels and is low compared to prior recessions' troughs. 

The conditions in the U.S. labor markets might be improving somewhat off the pandemic lows, but the situation overall remains dire. 

16/11/20: Retail sales, Sector employment and COVID19 recovery

Retail sales suffered a sharp shock from the demand contraction following the first phase of COVID19 pandemic. As of the end of September, based on the preliminary estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau, total volume of retail sales in the U.S. has fully recovered to pre-pandemic levels:

Based on cumulative retail sales over trailing 12 months period, September 2020 stood at USD 5.519 trillion, which is USD48.371 billion above 12 months trailing cumulative for January 2020, and USD121.178 billion above the same measure for September 2019.

The same cannot be said about the recovery in the retail sector jobs:

As of October 2020, total employment in the U.S. retail sector stood at 15,173,500, 498,500 down on February 2020 and 471,200 less than in October 2019. In fact, the problem with the retail sector employment has been evident since the start of this Millennium. Held down by automation and increasing sales volumes flowing through web based retailers, the overall sector sales increases did not translate into sector employment growth. Over the last 10 years through September 2020, retail sales by value rose a cumulative 37%. Over the same period of time, retail sector average hourly earnings grew 27%, or 8 percentage points less than total private economy average hourly earnings inflation. Meanwhile, in 2006, $1 in hourly earnings of retail sector employees wages supported, roughly $1,380 of retail sales. As of September 2020, this number is almost $1,534.