The U.S. jobless rate, currently at 7.7 percent, remains elevated by historical standards. But it has fallen sharply from a peak of 10 percent in October 2009. However, that decline could soon grind to a halt, according to a recent paper from the San Francisco Federal Reserve.
Its authors argue that, because the slow but steady decline in the jobless rate has been in part due to slippage in the labor participation rate that is more a product of the business cycle than long-run demographic trends, as the Bureau of Labor Statistics presumes.
In January, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics significantly reduced its projections for medium-term labor force participation. The revision implies that recent participation declines have largely been due to long-term trends rather than business-cycle effects. However, as the economy recovers, some discouraged workers may return to the labor force, boosting participation beyond the Bureau’s forecast. Given current job creation rates, if workers who want a job but are not actively looking join the labor force, the unemployment rate could stop falling in the short term.
The rate of labor force participation has slid to its lowest level in 30 years.
This means that, just as years of weak consumer spending are expected to produce some amount of pent-up demand, so too could a prolonged period of high unemployment and underemployment unleash a new burst of entrants into the job market. That would ultimately be a positive sign – but the data may not look pretty.