Friday, September 4, 2015

Repost: A Brief Look Into "Not In Labor Force" Statistics

Originally posted June 2, 2012.
One of the stronger arguments made by Reason regarding the nature of the late recovery has been that the unemployment figures are padded downward by decreases in the labor participation rate. That is to say, a reduced labor pool also reduces unemployment. As an example of this, imagine you have 15 people, eight of whom are employed, five of whom are "not participating in the labor force" for whatever reason, and two of whom are unemployed but looking. This means the unemployment rate in this group is 20% (2/10). But say one of those unemployed people becomes discouraged and stops looking for work. They now are part of the "not participating" group, and now unemployment becomes 1/9, or 11%. With only a definitional change, unemployment has been nearly halved, and so we apparently see a similar sort of thing going on with BLS data.

I wanted to look more closely at the labor participation rate, which in turn is based on the "not in labor force" numbers (NILF hereafter). The BLS keeps four different subcategories of NILF data in addition to the overall total, but the BLS data seems to treat them all as subcategories of "want a job if they could have one", so I will do the same. (If I'm misreading this, please let me know.)

The upshot of this is that while the "Want A Job Now" pile does indeed continue to grow, the overall "Not In Labor Force" figures are growing even faster, and is on a fairly consistent ascent. One likely cause for this is the retirements of the Baby Boom generation, which would have been foreseeable. Indeed, Dean Calbreath alerted me to this possibility in another discussion when in 2002 the BLS projected this very scenario (PDF).

So what's the takeaway from all this? It's not clear to me. On the one hand, if the bulk of the increase in non-participants were from the "want a job" pile, the answer would be quite obvious: they've become stymied by the poor labor market. On the other hand, even if we assume that 100% of the growth in the rest of NILF is a function of retirees, that's a lot of people to be taking out of the labor market, and presumably, people who are at or near the peak of their earning potential. From a productivity standpoint, that means you've lost their brains in the work force; from a spending standpoint, they're downshifting their spending to match their newer circumstances. Neither are particularly good for the economy.

Update 6/7/12: One additional thought, something I should probably research: among the NILF, how many are really discouraged workers who are counted as retirees? Given what we know about how little Americans are saving for retirement, I do wonder whether a lot of baby boomers wouldn't take a job if they could find one, but because they are officially (and permanently) retired they don't count as being part of the labor force.

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