Forget the Unemployment Rate, Let’s Talk About the Employment Rate
By Jonathan House
The unemployment rate gets all the press, but the employment rate has been improving lately too.
The number of Americans working as a proportion of the overall populace — called the employment-population ratio — rose to 58.8% in January. That level was last consistently seen in 2009.
Still, the measure remains well below its prerecession levels in the 60s. It bottomed out at 58.2% in late 2010, a fact many economists highlight as evidence of a lack of progress in the jobs recovery despite a falling unemployment rate.
The nation’s unemployment rate fell to 6.6% in January, a much more sizable improvement from its 10% peak in late 2009. But some of the same factors that many economists believe are overstating the improvement of the unemployment rate are also understating the improvement in the employment-population ratio.
The unemployment rate is falling so quickly in part because of many people dropping out of the labor force. The portion of Americans who are working or looking for work has been on a downward trajectory for many years, a process that gained momentum during the recession and which puts downward pressure on ratios of both employment and unemployment.
Gary Burtless, an economist at the Brookings Institution, calculates that over half of this decline is the result of an aging population. That means it won’t be reversed as the economy recovers and lures discouraged job-seekers back into the workforce.
Mr. Burtless said January’s jobs data is new evidence the economy is slowly returning to full employment, albeit at a lower level. “We are slowly closing the gap,” he said