The financial markets rejoiced last week because the U.S. unemployment rate fell to 8.3 percent in January, 0.8 percentage points lower than a year earlier. Back in the real world, the gain looks less impressive. The proportion of the adult American population with a job has hardly changed since January 2011 – it is up from 58.4 to 58.5 percent. That number peaked in 2000 at 64.4 percent.
The decline in American so-called “participation rate” is a serious economic problem. Many blame the cyclical downturn or inadequate GDP growth, but they are too focussed on output. The real issue is input: the supply and the need for labour. This is not just an issue for the United States. But the current shortage of jobs in most rich countries is the latest leg of a long race between technological forces that lead to job destruction and socio-economic forces which provide new kinds of employment.
Over the last two centuries, the contest has been fairly even. The labour savings in field, factory and home have been nothing short of amazing. Imagine that today’s technology and labour skills were available when Adam Smith wrote The Wealth of Nations in 1776. If people today worked as many hours a week as they did then, and for as many years of their lives, and if they consumed roughly the same quantity of goods and services, the unemployment rate would more like 70 than 8 percent.
But the forces of job creation have been equally amazing. The work has been spread out. People work less – they have weekends and holidays off, and more years of education and retirement. They also consume much more, and this creates employment. And although rampant consumerism raises some ethical questions, increased leisure and consumption constitutes basically good news.
There have been periods both of labour shortages and excess unemployment, but up to now balance has always been restored. We are now in a new period of imbalance in rich countries. The job-destructive forces of technology have pulled ahead of the rebalancing mechanisms. That should be interpreted as a call for action on jobs.