Trouble Signs in the Employment / Labor Market Picture

The September employment report, released Friday by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, continues a trend that has characterized much of 2016.  Job growth is slowing.  The economy added 156,000 jobs, but that’s the third straight monthly decline and is below the year-to-date average for 2016 (178,000 jobs per month), which is already down from 2015 (229,000 jobs per month).

Economists were at odds over how to interpret this latest report.  Some called it a “goldilocks” report – not too hot and not too cold.  In fact, on the surface, that might seem an apt analysis.  156,000 new jobs should be enough to absorb the growth in the labor force that results from population growth.  Yet, unemployment rose to 5.0% after hitting a low of 4.7% in May.

What’s happening is that what I have referred to in the past as the “mysteriously vanishing labor force” is reappearing.  It’s not a one-month phenomenon, but a trend that’s been building for well over a year now.  To better illustrate what’s happening, I ran some numbers dating back to the onset of the financial crisis that began at the end of 2007.  I tracked the change in the labor force and compared it to what the real growth in the labor force has been, assuming that people still need to find work to support themselves in about the same proportion that we’ve seen historically.  That is, about half of the population.  In other words, if the U.S. population grows by three million per year, it’s safe to assume that about 1.5 million of those people need work to support themselves and their dependents.  That’s been the historical norm.

If the growth in the labor force recorded by the BLS didn’t keep pace with the actual population, or if it actually contracted, then that’s a labor force “backlog” that the economy will eventually have to absorb and put to work at some point.

I then compared this backlog to the “employment level” reported by the BLS from its “household survey” portion of the monthly employment report.  Here’s what I found:


From 2008 until present, the actual labor force grew pretty consistently each year, along with the growth in the population.  (2011 was lower because of an adjustment to the U.S. population based on the 2010 census.)  However, note the 2nd line – the growth (or contraction) of the labor force reported by the BLS.  Until last year, only one time did the BLS-reported growth exceed the actual growth in the labor force – in 2012.  Each year that it was less, people actually dropped out of the labor force – thus, the “mysteriously vanishing labor force.”  My more cynical side suspects the Obama administration of manipulating this figure to make the unemployment rate lower.  But let’s assume that people actually did drop out, employing an array of tactics to survive financially, at least for some period of time.

The third line is a calculation of the “labor force backlog,” a cumulative tally of how many people have left the labor force.  For example, in 2009 when the BLS reported that the labor force actually contracted by 1.544 million workers, this figure added to the actual growth in the labor force of 1.324 million workers, produced a backlog of 2.868 million workers.  Added to the 2008 figure, the backlog by the end of 2009 was 3.505 million workers.

Line 4 is the change in the employment level reported by the BLS based on the household survey.  Again using 2009 as an example, the BLS reported that the employment level actually fell in 2009 by 5.356 million people.  It was a horrible year.  As a result, the unemployment rate actually soared to 9.9% in 2009 from 7.3% in 2008.  (It was 5.0% in 2007.)

With all that said, here’s the problem I see developing.  In 2015, the growth in the labor force reported by the BLS exceeded the actual labor force growth.  In other words, people in the “labor backlog” rejoined the work force.  And through last month, that has accelerated dramatically.  In only nine months, the labor force has grown by an amount that would usually take almost two years.

Economists say that this trend is the result of an improved labor market.  People see the jobs picture brightening, making the time right to find a good job.  But I believe another factor is at play here.  The tactics used by displaced workers to survive the downturn have run their course.  Those who went back to school for more training and more advanced degrees (including those who scammed the system and used student loans to meet living expenses) are now saddled with all the student debt they can endure.  Those who went back home to live with Mom and Dad may have overstayed their welcome or have put their families in a financial bind.  Others may have exhausted the severance packages they received when they lost their jobs.  People need a source of income to survive.  The idea that people could simply drop out of the labor force without consequences was preposterous.

The labor force backlog reached a record 6.359 million people by the end of 2014.  As of last month, it’s dropped some to 4.9 million workers, but that’s still a huge backlog.  As of last month, workers are pouring back into the labor force at a rate that has exceeded the growth in the employment level, a trend that’s actually accelerating at the very same time that job creation seems to be slowing.  As a result, unemployment has begun to rise again. This trend is likely to begin to put downward pressure on wages and could actually reduce consumer confidence and slow the economy.  And, it should be noted, that much of the job creation we’ve seen in recent months has been in the restaurant and bar industry and in retail – sectors of the economy that are especially sensitive to consumer confidence.  They’re the first places people rein in spending when finances get tight.

All of this spells trouble for the economy in the coming months.



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