September 22, 2015
Prime-Age Job Market Still Weak
The job market appears in fine form. August’s unemployment rate, at 5.1 percent, is now at half of its Great Recession levels.
But while the media latch on to the unemployment rate in the federal government’s monthly jobs reports, economists like Gary Burtless of the Brookings Institution are interested in a different number that’s also part of the monthly update: labor force participation among people in their prime working years, ages 25 through 54.
They are the heart of the labor market, and the trend in their participation rate paints a bleaker picture of the job market, Burtless noted in a recent report. In August, the rate was just 80.7 percent – and still below the 83 percent level prior to the 2008-2009 recession.
Labor force participation is the percentage of Americans working or looking for work. It’s critical to how the job market’s faring, because when it declines it means that even people in their prime working years are giving up on finding a job, indicating underlying weakness in the job market.
On a brighter note, the percentage of prime-age workers who have jobs is rising, though this also remains below pre-recession levels.
Burtless concludes, “The labor market is healing, but the sustained drop in participation is an indicator that the job market is still some way from robust good health.”
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