Lower future jobless rate may give Fed little comfort

March 26, 2012

While Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke was noting the recent strengthening of the U.S. job market is “out of sync” with an otherwise slow recovery on Monday, economists at the New York Fed drew attention to the jobless rate itself by saying that some big changes lie ahead for U.S. labor.

The jobless rate may fall faster than expected to less than 5 percent in five years’ time, the economists said in the first in a series of posts but that seems likely to be due more to the fact that fewer people will be in the labor market than to future job creation.

The post notes how, between 2008 and 2012, the employment to-population ratio had a different pattern than in previous economic cycles, with the unemployment rate falling “because the participation rates declined substantially”. Given the U.S. aging population, with 10,000 baby boomers turning 65 each day, this rate is likely to decline even more. The argument has interesting implications, including a potential decline in the usefulness of the jobless rate as a gauge of well-being.

If the employment-to-population ratio continues to be sluggish as the unemployment rate declines (suggesting that flows to nonparticipation are important in driving the unemployment rate decline), then the unemployment rate will emerge as an increasingly less reliable measure of the health of the labor market.

If so, what will Fed officials look at when defining its future policies?

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