Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Labor Force Participation Rate Projection Update

by Bill McBride on 4/11/2012 11:38:00 AM

BLS economist Mitra Toossi released some new projections for the participation rate as of January 2012: Labor force projections to 2020: a more slowly growing workforce. This post updates a couple of graphs with these projections.

A key issue is what will happen to the labor force participation rate as the economy slowly recovers. In 2010 I looked at some of the cyclical and long term trends for the participation rate: Labor Force Participation Rate: What will happen? I concluded that a majority of the recent decline in the participation rate is due to changes in demographics.

Changes in population and the participation rate can significantly impact the unemployment rate. If the Civilian noninstitutional population (over 16 years old) grows by about 2 million per year - and the participation rate stays flat - the economy will need to add about 94 thousand jobs per month to keep the unemployment rate steady at 8.2%.

However if the population grows faster (say 2.5 million per year), and/or the participation rate rises, it could take significantly more jobs per month to hold the unemployment rate steady. As an example, if the working age population grows 2.5 million per year and the participation rate rises to 65% (from 63.8%) over the next two years, the economy will need to add 227 thousand jobs per month to hold the unemployment rate steady.

A big difference!

Note: These calculations were done with the Atlanta Fed Jobs Calculator.

That is why forecasting the participation rate is important - and why reports of the number of jobs needed to hold the unemployment rate steady are all over the place and can be very confusing.

Here is an update to a couple of graphs based on Toossi's projections.

Participation RateClick on graph for larger image.

Note that Toossi is expecting a couple of recent trends to continue: lower participation rates for people in the 16 to 24 year age group (I think this decline is mostly due to more people attending college), and an increase in the participation for older age groups (I think this increase is due to several factors including less physically strenuous jobs, and, unfortunately, financial need).

Participation RateThe second graph shows the actual annual participation rate and two forecasts based on changes in demographics. Now that the leading edge of the baby boom generation is starting to retire, the participation rate is declining and will probably continue to decline for the next 20 years.

This suggests that any bounceback in the participation rate as the economy recovers will probably be fairly small, and the number of jobs needed to hold the unemployment rate steady is probably closer to 100 thousand per month than the frequently report 150+ thousand per month.

Here is the paper with the longer term projection, from Austin State University Professor Robert Szafran in September 2002: Age-adjusted labor force participation rates, 1960–2045 (these projections were made before the recession).

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