Lately whenever we get a new jobs report that shows the official unemployment rate continuing on its slow but steady decline (currently at 7%), we also have to consider the Labor Force Participation Rate, that is, the percentage of the working-age population that is either employed or is actively looking for work, and thus considered to be officially unemployed.
As seen in the below chart, the Labor Force Participation Rate has declined to levels not seen in about 35 years or so, to about 63%.
Or said differently, the percent of people that are classified as actually being in the labor force, (either working or actively seeking work), has sunk to a level not seen since the late 1970s.
Every time these figures are reported and repeated, there seems to be quite a bit of speculation around the causes of this decline. Just why are there relatively fewer participants in the labor force?
Is it simply a matter of demographics as retirements of the first wave of baby boomers (now in their mid-to-late 60s) start to accelerate?
Or are younger workers simply dropping out of the labor force due to the frustration of not being able to find work, either due to a simple lack of openings or having repeatedly failed to secure work in what is still an extremely competitive job market?
The underlying reasons for this drop in participation do matter I think, as they can be used to more effectively create policies and programs to address them, (if that is needed), as well as for HR and talent pros that might need to understand these trends and include them as an input into their workforce planning process.
Shigeru Fujita from the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia recently published a research paper on the topic, titled On the Causes of Declines in the Labor Force Participation Rate, that attempts to break down the causes of these declines, and for anyone interested in the topic is well worth a read.
In a nutshell, the paper concludes that about 65% of the decline in the Labor Force Participation Rate since year 2000, (roughly when the decline began), and 2013 are due to retirements and disabilities, both suggestive of the 'demographics' side of the declining labor force equation. Note that the 'retirement' portion of the decline only commences in about 2010, when the oldest boomers would be about 65 years old.
Additionally, the paper also concludes that while there was a significant jump between 2007 and 2011 of 'discouraged' workers leaving the labor force, i.e. people that wanted to work, but simple gave up trying to find work, that all the declines seen in participation since 2012 are due to increased retirements and not increases in discouraged workers. These conclusions suggest that the lower labor force participation rate is really the new normal, at least for the short term.
I know I am probably boring you to tears at this point, but I find this data, and the reasons driving the changes, really interesting. If you're organization is having a hard time finding the people you need for your opportunities, or has plans to grow or expand in any substantial way in the near future, then these macro labor force trends are worth considering.
Once folks leave the labor force, it is really hard to get them to come back, whether they have retired, or have simply given up.
Have a great week!