Share of working-age Americans with a job is the lowest in decades

In the debate about whether the headline unemployment rate tells the whole story about the labor market, here’s another data point indicating there’s more than meets the eye. From the Washington Post:

The proportion of Americans in their prime working years who have jobs is smaller than it has been at any time in the 23 years before the recession, according to federal statistics, reflecting the profound and lasting effects that the downturn has had on the nation’s economic prospects.

By this measure, the jobs situation has improved little in recent years. The percentage of workers between the ages of 25 and 54 who have jobs now stands at 75.7 percent, just a percentage point over what it was at the downturn’s worst, according to federal statistics.

Before the recession the proportion hovered at 80 percent.

The story explains once more why the headline unemployment rate, which has held steady or fallen for 11 straight months, doesn’t paint the whole picture. Short answer: It’s about the continued problem of people giving up searching for work and taking themselves, statistically speaking, out of the work force — leading the unemployment rate to fall at a faster pace than job creation is rising.

But even this stat for 25- to 54-year-olds doesn’t tell the whole story. Further down in the article, we read:

The falloff has been sharpest for men, for whom the proportion had been on a slow decline before the recession. The percentage of prime-age men who are working is smaller now than it has been in any time before the recession, going all the way back to 1948, according to federal statistics. The proportion of prime-age women is at a low not seen since 1988.

That’s right: The proportion of prime-age men with a job is the smallest in at least 64 years. I say “at least” because 1948 is as far back as federal labor statistics go.

In the immediate future, this reality means the job market will have a larger impact on President Obama’s re-election chances than the steadily declining unemployment rate would suggest. Until participation in the labor force readjusts to historically normal levels, the unemployment rate doesn’t tell us as much as it once did. So the usual measures of how an incumbent does when the jobless rate is above or below X percent won’t do prognosticators as much good.

More broadly, however, this speaks to the issues Charles Murray highlights in his recent book, “Coming Apart.” Murray documents the dramatic divergence in employment between what he calls “the new upper class” and “the new lower class” — and argues that government programs that foster a culture of dependence and lack of personal responsibility have enabled this joblessness among men who otherwise ought to be working.

That broader context of the competing political ideologies in our country makes it all the more worthwhile for these depressing employment trends to be at the center of this year’s presidential campaign.

– By Kyle Wingfield

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240 comments Add your comment

Finn McCool (The System isn't Broken; It's Fixed)

May 30th, 2012
11:41 am

@@

May 30th, 2012
11:42 am

Prime “Rib” on Obama.

kelly

May 30th, 2012
11:47 am

We have been setting ourselves up for this kind of disaster for a long time. The decades long deterioration of our institutions has weakened us as a country. Particularly our education policy. This has less to do with unions or teachers than a non-existent national industrial policy. It is being widely reported that our problem is not that there aren’t jobs, it’s that we don’t have a trained workforce to do the jobs. This is a slow-motion crisis that will take a generation to fix. In today’s political climate, I wonder if we have the will to do the hard thing and turn this around.

DannyX

May 30th, 2012
11:48 am

Romney’s private sector experience didn’t help him create jobs in Massachusetts. Massachusetts ranked 47th out of 50 states in creating jobs during Romney’s tenure. What exactly is Romney’s ideology on jobs?

I don’t think Romney was very popular in Massachusetts. He didn’t run for reelection and trails Obama in Mass by 25 points.

How exactly does the economy replace all the jobs that were lost due to the Bush Great Recession, the corporate takeover frenzy, jobs lost to China, outsourcing to India, and government job losses?

@@

May 30th, 2012
11:50 am

Unreported income matters to the IRS because those “unreported” dollars are lost revenue for the taxman. (In 2001, the Internal Revenue Service estimates it was losing $345 billion in tax revenue. In 2009, according to Feige, that estimate could be approaching $600 billion.)

Oh my! Next thing ‘ya know, the dems will be taxing babysitters…yard sellers…

iggy

May 30th, 2012
11:50 am

“and argues that government programs that foster a culture of dependence and lack of personal responsibility have enabled this joblessness among men who otherwise ought to be working.”

HEAR, HEAR!!

Buried in the pages of ObamaCare is a plan/blueprint for increasing the enrollment for individuals into welfare and food stamps. Obama wants to be everyones Big Daddy. Forget jobs, just vote for me and I will take care of you until there are so many I will screw you all!!

JKL2

May 30th, 2012
11:51 am

Why get a job when you can just vote obama.

Free money for everyone!

Brought to you by the Democrat “give a man a fish” Party.

Illegal Alien

May 30th, 2012
11:56 am

With a Government that is achieving next to nothing, I’m not going to be hiring any new personnel. I’ve been scorched once, already.

When I talk about Government, that’s includes both parties.

JKL2

May 30th, 2012
11:58 am

danny x- I don’t think Romney was very popular in Massachusetts.

Might have something to do with horrendous Romneycare and bankrupting the state. I’m sure obama’s flagship program will work out better (until it’s overturned next month)

md

May 30th, 2012
12:01 pm

“Romney’s private sector experience didn’t help him create jobs in Massachusetts.”

You mean the very blue state with the very blue legislature??

He more than likely kept them from killing even more jobs……

DannyX

May 30th, 2012
12:02 pm

“Might have something to do with horrendous Romneycare and bankrupting the state.”

What a great candidate the Republicans have!!!

Kyle Wingfield

May 30th, 2012
12:03 pm

To be clear, that should be “prime working-age Americans” in the headline. I left out “prime” in my effort to keep it short. Apologies for any confusion.

md

May 30th, 2012
12:07 pm

Kyle….some would argue that “prime” is much higher than 54. I myself prefer to hire those over 54…..one doesn’t have to train them to get out of bed and they never quit when the cool kid is having a party……..

Jefferson

May 30th, 2012
12:09 pm

So somehow the blame lies on the President ? or are you just ridin’ the trash truck ? Just when did this trend begin ?

jd

May 30th, 2012
12:12 pm

I marvel at economists that can simply rationalize an outcome based on one variable… wow — so businesses don’t consider that increasing the avg number of hours worked as a cheaper than hiring additional employees? Or, the great recession did not “re-structure” the economy to take advantage of more efficient means of production? Or, unlike other recoveries, American business capital is more concentrated in the hands of a few choosing to invest in ventures with short run gains oblivious to the protestant work ethic of investing for the long run and thrift (see Max Weber)…. wow — just wow

Kyle Wingfield

May 30th, 2012
12:14 pm

md @ 12:07: I’m not going to argue, just using the terminology of the Post/Bureau of Labor Statistics (not sure which one came up with the term).

Aquagirl

May 30th, 2012
12:19 pm

The proportion of prime-age men with a job is the smallest in at least 64 years.

They’re all watching ESPN.

Lil' Barry Bailout (Revised Downward)

May 30th, 2012
12:19 pm

Jefferson: So somehow the blame lies on the President ?
——–

A year into his regime? No.

Nearly four years in, after getting everything he wanted from Congress for the first two? Absolutely.

Obozo: Job-killing, economy-trashing failure.

Darwin

May 30th, 2012
12:20 pm

U.S. productivity is at its highest though. Which simply means that we are producing more with less manual labor. Call it technology. Just look at the automotive industry as an example. Robotics have replaced most of the “men” on the line. I would think this is a Republican’s dream.

md

May 30th, 2012
12:21 pm

“so businesses don’t consider that increasing the avg number of hours worked as a cheaper than hiring additional employees?”

Of course they do…..and even more so now that Obamacare is on the horizon. Then we have a little matter of higher unemployment insurance due to the rise in mandated benefits……not to mention the need for shifting accounting personnel to cover the new financial regulations…..

Yep….they all play a part in the mindset of business. A

And let’s not forget the added cost to consumers to use their credit cards to buy products from said businesses……..we all are enjoying covering the deadbeats with are higher rates.

md

May 30th, 2012
12:23 pm

“Robotics have replaced most of the “men” on the line. I would think this is a Republican’s dream.”

And replaced them with those smart enough to get their degrees in robotics………

Lil' Barry Bailout (Revised Downward)

May 30th, 2012
12:24 pm

Just look at the automotive industry as an example. Robotics have replaced most of the “men” on the line.
——–

What? GM is “maximizing profits”? I thought Obozo wanted everyone to have a “fair shot”…just another lie I guess.

Jefferson

May 30th, 2012
12:26 pm

The trend started before the president was elected.

Dusty

May 30th, 2012
12:29 pm

Well, the Democrats blamed everything from soup to nuts on President Bush. So now we can blame everything on President Obama.

Employment is not better for working age Americans. Neither jobs nor prosperity nor inspiration have improved under the current president..

We can be fooled for only a short time and that time is over for President Obama. Change is a necessity. Romney is ready, able and experienced!

Kyle Wingfield

May 30th, 2012
12:38 pm

Aquagirl: You laugh, but here’s one of the more revealing data points from Murray’s book (p. 181):

“In 2003-05, men [with no more than a high-school diploma] who were not employed spent less time on job search, education, and training, and doing useful things around the house than they had in 1985. They spent less time on civic and religious activities. They didn’t even spend their leisure time on active pastimes such as exercise, sports, hobbies, or reading. All of those figures were lower in 2003-05 than they had been in 1985. How did they spend that extra leisure time? Sleeping and watching television. The increase in television viewing was especially larger — from 27.7 hours per week in 1985 to 36.7 hours in 2003-05.”

Dusty

May 30th, 2012
12:39 pm

Robotics? Really?

I went to the grocery store and did not see a single robot.

I went to the dentist and not a single robot in sight (thank goodness!)

Went to QT and not a single robot was pumping gas and selling stuff.

Stopped at the hospital and robots were not doing surgery or bedside care.

Got on I285 and saw not a single robot truck driver.

Am I going to the wrong places to meet these wonderful robots? Do they live in Hollywood?

Kyle Wingfield

May 30th, 2012
12:40 pm

Jefferson @ 12:26: True, but do you expect voters who have been out of work for a year or two to give him that benefit of the doubt on Election Day?

iggy

May 30th, 2012
12:42 pm

Keanu Reeves acting skills seem quite robotic.

md

May 30th, 2012
12:43 pm

“but do you expect voters who have been out of work for a year or two to give him that benefit of the doubt on Election Day?”

His flock? Absolutely…..they’ll pull the lever for Obama and demand another 2 years of extended unemployment benefits……..not realizing the effect on employers in the long term.

Jefferson

May 30th, 2012
12:44 pm

Kyle, pay no attention to the man behind the curtain or those who prop him up…

Jefferson

May 30th, 2012
12:45 pm

Oh yea, what about the war on women with the PP funding ?

Stephenson Billings

May 30th, 2012
12:47 pm

Illegal Alien

May 30th, 2012
12:48 pm

My not having to pay for medical insurance increases my bottom line. The same probably holds true for other employers, also.

Thank goodness for Obamacare.

JDW

May 30th, 2012
12:51 pm

@dusty…”Am I going to the wrong places to meet these wonderful robots? Do they live in Hollywood?”

Yep. Try a factory or distribution warehouse. They are full of them. Why my back surgeon used a robot for the tricky stuff.

JDW

May 30th, 2012
12:56 pm

@kyle..”In the immediate future, this reality means the job market will have a larger impact on President Obama’s re-election chances than the steadily declining unemployment rate would suggest.”

You are overlooking one small fact…

“A plurality of Americans continue to blame Bush for the nation’s economic struggles: 43 percent of voters said he deserved a lot or almost all of the blame, compared with 36 percent who point to Republicans in Congress, 33 percent who think Democrats in Congress are responsible and 30 percent who blame President Obama, according to a December AP-GfK poll.”

http://articles.boston.com/2012-03-31/nation/31261397_1_mitt-romney-bush-legacy-florida-governor-jeb-bush
Voters remember how we got here and don’t care to repeat the mistake.

Oblama

May 30th, 2012
12:59 pm

Sorry Wingfield – Nanny Pelosi says people on welfare is GOOD for the economy…. it helps to spread the wealth. According to Nanny that welfare check keeps people in business. She says it’s even better fort the economy than a real job. Nanny is a real hoot – don’t you think so?

JDW

May 30th, 2012
1:00 pm

@dusty…”Well, the Democrats blamed everything from soup to nuts on President Bush. So now we can blame everything on President Obama.”

In case you missed it things got way worse under Duhbya and have improved since.

Oblama

May 30th, 2012
1:01 pm

As long as that unemployment check keeps coming in why look for a job? After all you get the same thing for doing nothing if you are on minimum wage. Where is the incentive to actually look for a job?

Dusty

May 30th, 2012
1:02 pm

Jefferson @ 12:45

Awwwwww I missed the War on Women. Must have gone to the wrong Mall.

I bet Aquagirl started it. She’s good at those things Wears army boots! But I bet she can’t knit, crochet or boil water! Sniff!

Nincompoops! Woman have always been in charge!

Aquagirl

May 30th, 2012
1:03 pm

Aquagirl: You laugh

Actually I was only half kidding: it’s not a coincidence we have shiny new stadiums and crappy school systems.

There are a lot of overgrown boys in this country who need to grow up and act like men. That means spending the weekend with their families, not watching guys in tight pants slapping each other on the butt.

Dusty

May 30th, 2012
1:04 pm

JDW@ 1:00

You better look up the definition of “improving”. Methinks thee are a bit confused.

Oblama

May 30th, 2012
1:04 pm

People actually believe that if they can get Oblama reelected he will keep them on unemployment for the next four years. They will wake up to reality shortly after this election is over and their check is cut off. It’s going to be sad and it’s going to hurt and it’s going to make people mad at Oblama. To late – got what you voted for.

Oblama

May 30th, 2012
1:06 pm

gone today – here tomorrow.

Oblama

May 30th, 2012
1:10 pm

Politicians in Congress today – of, by and for themselves. TERM LIMITS have a better chance of causing an economic recovery than the current politicians. Young people need to realize that the government isn’t going to be in a position to take care of them for the rest o their lives. Get out there and find a job – any job – and you will feel better about yourself.

md

May 30th, 2012
1:12 pm

“Oh yea, what about the war on women with the PP funding ?”

Red Herring…….but the talking point sounds good to those dumb enough to listen to it.

Is it a war on men if the taxpayers decide not to fund a new stadium??

Kyle Wingfield

May 30th, 2012
1:13 pm

JDW: One more time: A single poll does not constitute “fact” in the sense you suggest.

In any case, you will notice that 43+36+33+30=143, which is rather more than 100. So there’s some overlap in these answers. And in any case, not among the choices was one Mitt Romney, and he — not Bush — will be on the ballot opposite Obama.

You apparently assume the sentiment toward Bush will automatically transfer to Romney. I say that’s not necessarily a good assumption.

Grasshopper

May 30th, 2012
1:21 pm

DannyX @ 11:48

“Romney’s private sector experience didn’t help him create jobs in Massachusetts. Massachusetts ranked 47th out of 50 states in creating jobs during Romney’s tenure. What exactly is Romney’s ideology on jobs?”

That is such a load of hooey DannyX.

When Romney took office the unemployment rate in Mass. was 6%; when he left it was 4.5%. Considering full employment is about 5%, Romney’s record on job growth in Mass. is admirable. Compared to Obama’s record, it is miraculous!

DannyX

May 30th, 2012
1:25 pm

“That is such a load of hooey DannyX.”

If that is such a load of hooey Grasshopper why does Romney trail Obama by 25 points in Massachusetts? And why did Romney not run for a second term?

@@

May 30th, 2012
1:29 pm

Speaking of: the benefit of the doubt on Election Day?

Three “Elect Victor Hill” signs have sprung up in my neighbors’ yards.

Off-topic, I know, but

REALLY!!??!! ARE THEY SERIOUS!!??!!

md

May 30th, 2012
1:32 pm

“If that is such a load of hooey Grasshopper why does Romney trail Obama by 25 points in Massachusetts?”

What part of MA is a very blue state do you not understand??