Economic Indicators

News from EPI December Caps of a Year of Strong Job Growth but Stagnant Wages

With today’s jobs report, we can now look at the state of the labor market in 2014 as a whole, and examine the trajectory of our economic recovery. The good news is that in 2014 people were increasingly finding jobs. The bad news is that we are still digging our way out of the recession, and wage growth remains stagnant and untouched by recovery.

In December, the economy added 252,000 jobs, while average monthly job growth in 2014 was 246,000 jobs. This is a clear improvement over the last several years. Since the end of the recession, we have seen an increasing number of jobs added each year, albeit a slow increase. In 2010, average monthly job growth was only 88,000. Average monthly job growth rose in each consecutive year, up to 194,000 in 2013 and 246,000 jobs a month in 2014.

If we continue to see the 2014 level of jobs growth for the next few years, we will return to pre-recession labor market health in August 2017. On the one hand, 246,000 jobs a month is a decent rate of growth; on the other hand, September 2017 is almost three years away, and nearly 10 years since the recession began.

Turning to the household survey, where the official unemployment rate is determined, we see a similar story. The unemployment rate in December declined to 5.6 percent, primarily due to a drop in the labor force. All together, the unemployment rate for 2014 averaged 6.2 percent, down significantly from its high of an average of 9.6 percent in 2010. And, just in the last year, the unemployment rate has fallen dramatically, from an average of 7.4 percent in 2013. That said, the official unemployment rate fails to take into account millions of missing workers—workers who have been sidelined by the weak economy and who are expected to return to the labor market when job opportunities significantly improve.

Despite the minor surge in job creation over the last year, there is still substantial slack in the labor market, as evidenced by the continued sluggishness in nominal wage growth. Private sector nominal average hourly earnings grew 1.7 percent annually in December, lower than average, but in line with what we’ve seen this year so far. Nominal hourly earnings averaged $24.44 in 2014, up from $23.96 in 2013—the average annual growth rate between 2013 and 2014 was 2.0 percent.

For the last five years, nominal wages have grown far slower than any reasonable wage target. The fact is that the economy is not growing enough for workers to feel the effects in their paychecks and not enough for the Federal Reserve to slow the economy down out of fear of upcoming inflationary pressure. If the Fed acts too soon, it will slow labor share’s recovery and come at a cost to Americans’ living standards. It is imperative that the Fed keep their foot off the brake for as long as it takes to see modest (if not strong) wage growth for America’s workers.

See more work by Elise Gould