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Labor force participation rates across the OECD Who's working depends on where you look

One critical element for the growth of an economy is an active working-age population: Growth can be hampered when (i) the overall population is aging and a larger share of the population is retired or (ii) a larger share of the working-age population simply isn’t working. The graph above shows, for four countries, the share of the population that’s 25 to 54 years of age—i.e., prime working age—with a job. The remainder of that population is either unemployed or not looking for a job.

This graph reveals some stark contrasts. Japan and the U.K. show steady increases, which helps counter the effects of their aging populations, a condition that’s of particular concern in Japan. Spain shows a very rapid increase, which demonstrates that such a statistic need not move in a sluggish way. The U.S., however, shows no significant movement in the 1990s and a decline since then. We know this isn’t due to an increase in unemployment, which is at its lowest rate in a long time.

To be fair, the increases in other countries are partly due to increases in women’s labor force participation. The U.S. experienced a surge in women’s participation much earlier and has apparently reached its plateau. Much of the decrease in U.S. labor force activity, as it turns out, has to do with men: Even a quick look at the graph below shows the steady decline in their activity. Understanding why this is happening is a topic of much current investigation.

How these graphs were created: For the first, search for “Participation Rate” and then use the sidebar to narrow down the choices. Then select the desired series (annual, in our case) and click on “Add to Graph.” For the second, searching for “United States Participation Rate” gives your the right options. Choose the annual series again, and click on “Add to Graph.”

Suggested by Christian Zimmermann.

View on FRED, series used in this post: LRAC25FEUSA156N, LRAC25MAUSA156N, LRAC25TTESA156N, LRAC25TTGBA156N, LRAC25TTJPA156N, LRAC25TTUSA156N

The recent evolution of labor force participation Small movements from a lot of labor market churn

Since the early 2000s, labor force participation has been declining in the U.S. After peaking at 67.3 percent in March of 2000, the labor force participation rate declined consistently to 62.4 percent in September 2015 and has since flattened out. The first graph shows the period of decline in the labor force participation rate, which started in early 2000, flattened out in mid-2005, and then declined again from the onset of the Great Recession to 2015.

Several variables in FRED can illustrate the labor force dynamics at play behind the declining labor force participation rate. The next graph shows the annual change in the labor force (employment plus unemployment). While the labor force has mostly been increasing since 2000, it has not been increasing fast enough to keep up with population growth. Starting in 2014, however, the pace of growth in the labor force picked up, which led to the flattening out of the participation rate.

The last graph shows monthly flows into (red line) and out of (blue line) the labor force. These gross flows are very close to each other, with the net changes (green line) always close to zero. It is the net changes that explain the evolution of aggregate labor force participation. From 2009 to 2016, the positive values are not enough to offset the more negative values and more people flowed out of the labor force. More recently, however, the positive contributions more than offset the negative values, leading to an increase in participation. Despite this recent evolution, the graph does not seem to point to any particular new trend that’s different from the past. This suggests that more research is needed to understand the observed decline in the participation rate.

How these graphs were created:
Graph 1: Search for “Labor Force Participation.” Graph the first result and limit the date range from 2000 to current.
Graph 2: Search for “Unemployment.” Graph the series titled “Unemployment Level.” From the Edit Graph tab, type “Employment Level” in the customize data section search box. Click the series titled “Civilian Employment Level” and then click Add. Finally, type a+b in the formula box and change the units to “Change, Thousands of Persons.”
Graph 3: Search for “Labor Force Flows.” Graph the series titled “Labor Force Flows Employed to Not in Labor Force.” Repeat the process outlined in Graph 2 to modify the line by adding “Labor Force Flows Unemployed to Not in Labor Force” to the graphed series. Now, select the middle menu and search for “Labor Force Flows Not in Labor Force to Unemployed” and add this series as a new line. Repeat the process to modify the line by adding “Labor Force Flows Not in Labor Force to Employed.” Once again, use the middle menu to add “Labor Force Flows Not in Labor Force to Employed” as a new line and then modify the line by adding the remaining three flows as additional series on the new line. Use the letters assigned to each series to calculate the difference of the sum of those flowing into the labor force less those flowing out of the labor force (e.g., consider (a+b)-(c+d)).

Suggested by Maximiliano Dvorkin and Hannah Shell.

View on FRED, series used in this post: CE16OV, CIVPART, LNS17200000, LNS17600000, LNS17800000, LNS17900000, UNEMPLOY

Disability within the labor force participation rate

Recent fluctuations in the labor force participation rate have received national attention. And there’s an obvious question here, with ramifications for how we view that number: Why would a working-age person not be in the labor force?

In June 2008, the Current Population Survey added a question about disability status. It turns out that a non-trivial number, about 1 in 5, report a disability that limits their capacity to work. The graph above shows that the number of persons out of the labor force who have a disability has been steadily rising and that there are more women than men in this group. The average increase has been about 1.9% year-over-year, with a slightly higher rate for men than women: 2% vs. 1.8%. These rates are significantly faster than population growth or the growth in the labor force. In other words, we’re seeing a piece of the decline in the overall labor force participation rate (i.e., the fraction of the working-age population who work or are actively trying to find work).

Although many physically demanding jobs have historically been male-dominated, more women report being out of the labor force because of a physical disability. Part of the reason is that there are more women who do not participate in the labor force. The disability questions also identify anyone in the household with a disability, so we may be seeing women staying out of the labor force to help care for a disabled member of the household.

The bottom graph shows the fractions of those out of the labor force: About 1 in 4 working-age men who are not in the labor force have a disability, whereas only 1 in 6 women do. The bottom graph also shows that the increasing trend (seen in the graph above) is right in line with the overall trend in non-participation. The fraction of workers out of the labor force because of disability is approximately constant, meaning that non-participants without a disability are rising at the same rate as those with a disability.

How these graphs were created: For the top graph, simply search for “not in labor force disability 16 64 men” and then the same series for women. For the bottom graph, use the same series (as the “a” series) and add the “no disability” versions (as the “b” series) with the “Add Data Series” / “Transform Data Series” options. Then apply the formula a/(a+b).

Suggested by David Wiczer.

View on FRED, series used in this post: LNU05076940, LNU05076945, LNU05076955, LNU05076960

The composition effect in the labor force participation rate

In previous posts, we’ve used FRED to show how demographic factors relate to the current decline in the labor force participation rate. This post also uses FRED data to illustrate how the composition of the labor force relates to its current decline.

The first graph shows the aggregate labor force participation rate (thick black line), which leveled off in the 1990s, started to decline, and then declined further during the recent recession and thereafter. The other lines in the graph show the various age categories of the labor force participation rate. The so-called “prime working age,” which is 25-54 years, follows a similar pattern as the aggregate rate, but its decline is not as pronounced: It declined about 3 percentage points, while the aggregate rate declined almost 5 points. So the other age categories must also be contributing to the overall decline. The 16-19 years category declined dramatically and is certainly part of the story. Fewer students work during their high school years now, and more go to high school and college. To some extent, this same effect applies to the 20-24 years category.

What about the 56 years and older category? Their participation rate has increased, so does that mean they have counterbalanced the decline in younger workers? We look more closely at this question: The number of workers in this category has increased, as the Baby Boomers have gotten older and moved out of the prime working age category. And the participation rate of this age group is lower than the aggregate rate, so an increase in their numbers (and in their share of the labor force) implies a net negative contribution to the aggregate participation rate. Such an effect is called a composition effect.

We illustrate this effect in the graph below by comparing the reported overall participation rate (again: thick black line) with an artificial line (in blue) constructed by keeping the population shares of each age group constant. This constructed series does not show as much of a decline, which implies that, overall, changes in the shares of the age groups have contributed to the aggregate rate’s decline.

How these graphs were created: Search for “labor force participation rate years,” and all the series you need should be there. (FYI: This graph uses seasonally adjusted data.) Use the “Add to Graph” button to add these series to the top graph. For readability, thicken the line for the aggregate rate. For the bottom graph, add the aggregate rate as before. Create the other data series by adding the first age category to the graph and then adding all the other age categories (in the same order as in the first graph) with the “Modify existing series” option. Then use the “Create your own data transformation” option for this series to apply the following formula: 0.348*a + 0.5*b + 0.066*c + 0.088*d. (This formula reflects the recent population shares of each age category as determined by the figures in the civilian noninstitutional population data.)

Suggested by Christian Zimmermann

View on FRED, series used in this post: CIVPART, LNS11300012, LNS11300036, LNS11300060, LNS11324230

The demographics of the labor force participation rate

There is much lamenting about the decline in the labor force participation rate. As we recently discussed on this blog, while the rate decreased quickly during the previous recession and its recovery, the overall decline began several years before. This decline indicates there must be more than cyclical or even policy-related forces at work. One likely candidate is demographics. In the graph above, the proportion of the U.S. population 25 to 54 years of age follows a pattern similar to that of the labor force participation rate over the past 10 years. Why look at this 25-54 age range? Because this group has the highest labor force participation rate. So, if the share of this age group is declining, the aggregate labor force participation rate is likely to decline as well.

How this graph was created: For the first line, search for “population 25-54” and select “Civilian noninstitutional population—25-54 years.” To create the ratio, add the “Civilian noninstitutional population” series via the “Add Data Series” option: When you add this series, be sure to select “Modify existing series” for series 1. Then use the “Create your own data transformation” option using the formula a/b*100 so that the result is expressed in percentages. For the second line, simply add the civilian labor force participation rate as series 2.

Suggested by Christian Zimmermann

View on FRED, series used in this post: CIVPART, CNP16OV, LNU00000060


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