SF Fed on Labor Force Participation and Older Workers

The Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco has a new paper out: Labor Force Participation and the Future Path of Unemployment. This paper touches on two of my favorite issues in this recession: the changing composition of the “out of the labor force” population and size as well as the work experiences of older workers approaching retirement at a point where the elite consensus is focused on cutting their Social Security by raising the retirement age, which I talked about here.

There’s a problem in figuring out how many jobs our economy needs to create because the “Out of Labor Force” participation rate is behaving unpredictably:

The labor force participation rate is highly uncertain because the aggregate trend is determined by heterogeneous patterns among separate demographic groups. The behavior of teenagers age 16 to 19, men age 25 to 54 in their working prime, and workers age 55 and over are particularly difficult to predict. Figure 2 plots the historical labor force participation rates of these groups.

The population that ends up out of the labor force, which are people who aren’t employed for money or aren’t actively looking for a job, is increasing. Here’s a disturbing statement (my bold):

The weak cyclical recoveries of the labor force participation rate of prime-age men are related to a secular decline. Labor force participation among prime-age men has fallen for two main reasons: increased access to Social Security disability benefits and decreased demand for less-skilled workers (Autor and Duggan 2003). These two factors are related. Decreased demand for less-skilled workers has driven down relative wages of high school dropouts. That in turn has increased the extent to which disability benefits are able to replace earned income. Almost 4.5% of the adult male population is receiving disability benefits in 2010. Those who enter the disability benefit system generally exit the labor force permanently and don’t return when economic conditions improve. The number of disability insurance applications has increased by 26.4% over the past two years, suggesting that many prime-age men who recently left the labor force may never come back.

This is a benefit of unemployment insurance that Till Marco von Wachter recently made at an excellent panel on unemployment insurance at EPI (we covered Raj Chetty’s portion of that conference here). It does increase unemployment rate, but the practical effect of that is that it encourages people to still seek work instead of drifting off into the out of the labor force population and becoming detached from the functioning labor markets.

How are older workers doing in a period in which our nation’s elites are assuming that they are having excellent matching and labor market outcomes working until 70?

In the case of the labor force participation rate of older workers, secular trends generally overwhelm cyclical patterns. Labor force participation of workers 55 and over consistently fell from the 1950s through the 1990s, when Social Security, pension, and retiree health benefits increased substantially and conditions were generally favorable for early retirement. However, in the 1990s, as the value of those retirement programs eroded, older workers reversed the downward trend. Since then, their labor force participation rate has risen steadily, even through cyclical downturns. Even though their unemployment rate more than doubled over the past three years, older workers have generally stayed in or entered the labor force….The upward trend may continue in the near future. The trends in retirement and health benefits will probably remain in place and the recession’s severe shock to wealth will likely compel even greater numbers of retirement-age workers to stay in the labor force (Daly, Hobijn, Kwok 2009).

Remember “labor force participation” is the unemployed and the employed together. So staying in the labor force doesn’t mean working.  And notice the bold again;  althought older workers’ unemployment rate has more than doubled more older workers are staying in the labor force.  This will continue because of “trends in retirement and health benefits.” Which is to say that they are more likely to be looking for work lately even though they seem, on a first cut, to have harder labor market matching and outcomes.

And heh. Yes, “trends in retirement and health benefits”, if you read earlier, means Social Security, pension and retiree benefits have eroded in value and older workers are desperate to find work even if it means futile and incredibly long-duration unemployment searches. And the next “trends in retirement benefits” may be the move to cut Social Security benefits and raise the retirement age unless people let their voices be heard.

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8 Responses to SF Fed on Labor Force Participation and Older Workers

  1. Editoress says:

    Are those real ads? Because if they are, specifying by age or sex is illegal.

  2. Mike says:

    Oh sorry, those ads are from the Great Depression era as blown up for an exhibit on Social Security I used to start a discussion on older worker’s work experiences that I talk about here. But yes, they were real at one point.

  3. jmm says:

    those ads were commonplace up through the 1960s — the employment pages of virtually every major metropolitan paper had separate classification sections for mens and women’s employment.

    the practice ended in the years following the passage of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which covered discrimination on the basis of sex as well as race.

  4. Mike,

    Here are two big questions that perhaps you could answer (or go on a mission to answer if you have time):

    1) Can Obama just do recess appointments for the three empty Board of Governors Chairs? The Senate has recesses all the time, including one that just occurred, August 9th – 12th. Their schedule is here:


    I have never heard anyone, anyone, ever explain a good reason why Obama didn’t do recess appointments for these seats a long time ago. Do you know, or could you perhaps find out, what Obama’s reasoning could possibly be for not doing this? Oh please don’t let it be he’s worried about the one day of headlines, that will be forgotten a week later, making him look un- post partisan fairy land, so he’s sacrificing the economy that’s about a million times more important in future elections, let alone for the country.

    2) If Bernanke really is pro-stimulus (perhaps a big if) why would he want to let the desire for consensus stop him from powering by the opponents on the FOMC? Why wouldn’t he push Obama to make the appointments, recess if necessary, to get him the votes on the FOMC, and if the bank presidents stand in the way (if they still did have enough votes) why wouldn’t he threaten to not confirm them when all of their tenures come up in 2011 (and follow through on this threat if necessary). All Federal Reserve Bank Presidents need confirmation by majority vote of the Federal Reserve Board when their terms all come up in 2011 (unless I’m mistaken).

    What wouldn’t Bernanke do this (if he is pro stimulus)? No one has ever outlined plausible reasoning why he wouldn’t do this.

    I have never seen answers to these questions in the blogosphere, or anywhere, and I read a lot, and it’s not that they aren’t important enough to write answers to, not by a long shot.

  5. mjfgates says:

    I love this quote!

    The behavior of teenagers age 16 to 19, men age 25 to 54 in their working prime, and workers age 55 and over are particularly difficult to predict. Figure 2 plots the historical labor force participation rates of these groups.

    So, men are “particularly difficult” to predict all the way from age 16 until retirement, with a little blip of predictable-ness from age 20 to 24. Woo, I’m unpredictable!

  6. Editoress says:

    Ok, thanks for the clarification. I ask in part because I routinely see ads posted on Craigslist that specify age and sometimes sex.

  7. Pingback: The Post that restores Pride in America « Out Of My Mind

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