Most of the Decline in Labor Force Participation in the Last Six Years is Cyclical

Over the last six years, the labor force participation rate dropped by several percentage points. There is a debate over how much of that drop is a direct result of the lack of job opportunities in the Great Recession and its aftermath (changes that are generally labeled cyclical), and how much is instead a result of long-run trends, such as baby boomers beginning to retire (changes that are generally labeled structural). A recent blog post in the Wall Street Journal said that among Federal Reserve officials, the view that much of the decline is structural is gaining traction. If true, that’s a problem. My read of the data shows that most of the decline is cyclical, so if the Fed believes it’s structural, it means they believe there’s less slack in the economy than there really is.

Part of the misunderstanding is that there are two components of structural change. First, there are population shifts. Age groups that tend to have lower labor force participation rates are now a larger share of the population (think retiring boomers). These are called “compositional” shifts. Accounting for purely compositional changes by gender and age, more than 40 percent of the decline in the labor force participation rate over the last six years can be accounted for. Many people doing a quick analysis on this topic tend to stop there.

However, the other component of structural change is made up of long-run trends in labor force participation within age/gender groups. The labor force participation rate among people under age 25 has been declining since the 1980s, in part due to increasing college and university enrollment. The continuation of that long-run trend accounts for an additional structural decline in the overall labor force participation rate over the last six years. The projected trend in labor force participation rate of workers age 25-54 was virtually flat, so that trend did not meaningfully contribute to structural changes over the last six years. The trend labor force participation of workers age 55+, however, was expected to rise significantly over this period, particularly for women, as cohorts with much stronger labor force attachment throughout their 20’s, 30’s, and 40’s than the cohorts that preceded them began aging into this age bracket. In other words, that’s a structural change that should have substantially contributed to an increase in labor force participation over this period.

Putting these factors together—the compositional changes between gender/age groups and the structural trends within gender/age groups—the result is that only around a quarter of the total drop in labor force participation over the last six years is structural. This means that around 75 percent of it is cyclical. In other words, there are now around 5.8 million workers who are not in the labor force but who would be if job opportunities were strong. If these workers were in the labor market looking for work, the unemployment rate right now would be 10.0 percent instead of 6.6 percent. That is a lot of additional slack in the labor market.

It has been pointed out that it is likely that at least some of the workers who are out of the labor force due to cyclical factors are people who gave up and decided to retire early. Given that retirees are less likely to reenter the labor force when job opportunities improve, improving economic conditions may not draw these workers back in. This means that labeling them as being out of the labor force due to cyclical factors may not be very useful. However, it is important to note that there are large participation gaps for workers age 54 or younger, who are unlikely to be early retirees. In fact, more than 70 percent of the 5.8 million missing workers are under age 55. These missing workers under age 55—4.2 million of them—are therefore unlikely to be deterred from entering or re-entering the labor force when job opportunities strengthen.