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41-Year-Olds and the Labor Force Participation Rate


On Friday, Dean Baker wrote: The Question on People Leaving the Labor Force is 41-Year-Olds, Not 61-Year-Olds

In his discussion of today’s employment report Neil Irwin notes that the unemployment rate is considerably lower than would otherwise be the case because so many people have simply given up looking for work and are therefore not counted as being unemployed. Irwin then adds that the big question is that if the economy eventually recovers is:

“How many of the 61-year-olds who gave up looking for a job in the last few years are going to return to the labor force when they smell opportunity, and how many have retired for good?”

Actually, the story of people leaving the labor force is not primarily one of older workers who are near retirement age, it is primarily a story of prime age workers. …

It is difficult to envision any obvious reason why people in their prime working years would suddenly decide that they did not want to work other than the weakness of the labor market. Most of these workers will presumably come back into the labor market if they see opportunities for employment.

This brings up a few key points:

1) Analyzing and forecasting the labor force participation requires looking at a number of factors. Everyone is aware that there is a large cohort has moved into the 50 to 70 age group, and that that has pushing down the overall participation rate. Another large cohort has been moving into the 16 to 24 year old age group – and many in this cohort are staying in school (a long term trend that has accelerated recently) – and that is another key factor in the decline in the overall participation rate.

2) But there are other long term trends. One of these trends is for a decline in the participation rate for prime working age men (25 to 54 years old).

3) Although Dr. Baker argues that the decline in prime working age workers is due to “weakness of the labor market”, this decline was happening long before the Great Recession. For some reasons, see: Possible Reasons for the Decline in Prime-Working Age Men Labor Force Participation and on demographics from researchers at the Atlanta Fed: “Reasons for the Decline in Prime-Age Labor Force Participation”

Lets take a look at Dean Bakers “41-Year-Olds”. I used the BLS data on 40 to 44 year old men (only available Not Seasonally Adjusted since 1976). I choose men only to simplify.

Labor Force Participation Rate, Men, 40 to 44 Click on graph for larger image.

This graph shows the 40 to 44 year old men participation rate since 1976 (note the scale doesn’t start at zero to better show the change).

There is a clear downward trend, and a researcher looking at this trend in the year 2000 might have predicted the 40 to 44 year old men participation rate would about the level as today (see trend line).

Clearly there are other factors than “economic weakness” causing this downward trend.   I listed some reasons a few months ago, and new research from Pew Research suggests stay-at-home dads is one of the reasons: Growing Number of Dads Home with the Kids

Just looking at this graph, I don’t think there are many “missing 41-Year-Old” men that will be returning to the labor force.

Labor Force Participation Rate, Men, Prime Age GroupsThe second graph shows the trends for each prime working age men 5-year age group.

Note: This is a rolling 12 month average to remove noise (data is NSA), and the scale doesn’t start at zero to show the change.

Clearly there is a downward trend for all 5 year age groups. When arguing about how many workers are “missing”, we need to take these long term trends into account.

Labor Force Participation Rate, Men, Prime Age GroupsThe third graph shows the same data but with the full scale (0% to 100%).  The trend is still apparent, but the decline has been gradual.

The bottom line is that the participation rate was declining for prime working age workers before the recession, there are several reasons for this decline (not just recent “economic weakness”) and many estimates of “missing workers” are probably way too high.
Calculated Risk

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