Payroll employment peaked in December, and according to numbers released today had declined by 260,000 jobs as of April. (Source: BLS.) Since we have not yet seen a single negative number on GDP growth, this job loss is easily the most tangible statistical evidence we have so far that the much-heralded recession indeed may have started in the first quarter of 2008.
It has been noted that the unemployment rate started out from a low level — averaging 4.6 % in 2007 — so that even after a period of gradual increase, it remains relatively low by historical standards: 5.0% in April. This is still inside the range that has usually been considered by politicians as too low to generate serious discontent (and by central bankers as too low to put downward pressure on wages and prices). But why, then, is there so much popular dissatisfaction with the economy?
One answer is the old “discouraged worker” effect. Workers who stop looking for a job are not counted in the labor force, and so are not counted as unemployed. There is an obvious way to capture this phenomenon. Compare employment to the entire population, rather than only to those who are actively in the work force. The chart does that. (These figures include farm jobs, as in the standard BLS employment ratio.)
The path of the employment/population ratio during the current decade has been remarkable. The steep slide in jobs that began with the 2001 recession continued thereafter, and actually accelerated in late 2002. Finally the freefall leveled out. (The Bush Administration trumpeted the turnabout in terms similar to those it now uses to sell the aftermath of the troop surge in Iraq: the response to an unacceptable casualty rate was to make things worse for a half-year, and thereafter to compare the post-surge rate of casualties to the high-point, rather than to the period that came before.)
Employment did indeed rise between the years 2003 and 2007. But it barely stayed ahead of population growth. It did very little to make up for the decline equal to 2-3% of the population that had taken place during the first two years of the Bush Administration. The labor force participation rate normally rises in a boom, as good labor market conditions lure workers out of homes, schools and retirement. This is certainly what happened during the record expansion of 1992-2000. But it did not happen during the most recent expansion. To the contrary, the labor force participation rate was at a minimum in 2007, even though that year appears to have been the peak of the business cycle. As a result, employment as a share of the population was well below what it had been at the preceding business cycle peak year (2000). The fraction of Americans with jobs shows a decline from 64.7% to 62.6%, which translates into 4.9 million missing jobs ! Little wonder that, as employment once again starts to decline even in absolute terms, workers are unhappy.