Unmitigated good news on jobs

By Felix Salmon
January 6, 2012
America's employment situation turns out to have been rosier, at the end of 2011, than anyone had dared hope.

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File this one under “unmitigated good news”: America’s employment situation turns out to have been rosier, at the end of 2011, than anyone had dared hope. There were 200,000 more people in work last month than there were in November, and the unemployment rate — by far the single most politically-important macroeconomic statistic — fell to 8.5%, the lowest rate in three years. All data series are noisy, of course, and we’ll surely see volatility in this one over the course of 2012. But it really does seem that there’s a bit of fire in the American belly right now, and that things are going to continue to get better over the course of this year unless and until some new crisis comes along.

The cheer is spread all over this report. The broadest measure of underemployment, U-6, fell sharply to 15.2%, again a new three-year low, and down two full percentage points in two years. The unemployment figures more generally are now beginning to look as though they’re in a downward trend, rather than every good month being offset with a subsequent disappointment. I’m not worried about an economy falling below stall speed any more — there’s a world of difference between this report and the gruesome one we were initially presented with four months ago. Back then, it seemed like nothing could get Americans back to work: now, with political gridlock as far as the eye can see through 2012, it seems that America has got used to nothing and is has worked out how to grow anyway.

Of course, the long-term problems remain long-term problems, including the number of people unemployed for more than six months or a year, and the overall percentage of the population which actually has a job. None of those numbers moved significantly, and none are likely to any time soon. They’re not things which get changed by a monthlong bout of hiring: they’re deeply engrained in the economic structure of the country, now, and are likely to prove stubbornly resistant to change.

But for the majority of us who are working now or who have had a job in recent months, things are looking relatively rosy. Average weekly earnings rose to $799.46, continuing a steady upward rise. And there’s even hope that the painful public-sector layoffs might be coming to an end: while we now have 280,000 fewer government employees than we did a year ago, that number was pretty much unchanged in December. (Or maybe it’s just that even the government has a little heart, and doesn’t like laying people off right before the holidays.)

Is this a fantastic report? No: as Betsey Stevenson says, an economy on fire could and would add 400,000 jobs a month, rather than 200,000. But no one’s kidding themselves that this economy is on fire. The main thing is that it’s growing, that things are moving in the right direction, and that we’re well above stall speed. If we stall, remember, there’s no safety net: the chances of any kind of fiscal stimulus in 2012 are exactly zero. So we’re on our own, here. And, happily, we seem to be doing OK.


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It is indeed good news, but I wonder how long it will take for the Republican lobby to start dissing it? BlackRock’s Bob Doll was even before this report came out referring to the US economy as no more than “muddling along” so I expect other bankers and financiers, spin Doctors and Tea Party activists to contribute negatively to this discussion soon.

The sad thing is how much better the US economy would now be if not for the partisanship of the right. If the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats can work in government together in the UK, why so bitchy in the US?

Posted by FifthDecade | Report as abusive

There’s been a strange seasonal quirk every Dec & Jan for the last 3 years now. Of the +212K private jobs, 42K were in the “courier & messengers” sub-category. In other words, a large fraction is due to holiday delivery people that aren’t being picked up by the seasonal adjustment algorithm. (Maybe an artifact of a transition to more itnernet shopping?) In 2009 & 2010, this was undone in January. So it’s more like a +170K jobs report.

Posted by EcoNYC | Report as abusive

I blame Obama!

Posted by Nullcorp | Report as abusive

Good news, yes, or good enough, but hoping unemployment rate drops will feed back into a virtuous cycle of economic growth this time. These rates tend to be lagging indicators, right? Here’s hoping the good vibes carry the day, because all I hear is business execs moaning plaintively about gov’t regulation and “uncertainty,” as if either one was new. Jamie Dimon and friends would have complained about regulation during the Gilded Age…

Posted by jollypessimist | Report as abusive

It’s worth noting that the additional jobs were not enough to budge the employment-population ratio, which remained constant at 58.5%.

Posted by jack512 | Report as abusive

Would be much more interested in comparing December 2011 to past Decembers….there is always a lot of temporary hiring around the holidays.

Posted by mfw13 | Report as abusive