Where Have the Prime Age Workers Gone?

Since 1999, US prime-age labor force participation has declined.

This has naturally prompted speculation as to why, including theories about disability and the rising cost of child care pushing people to stay at home.

Hoping to shed some light on this, I went into the 1999 and 2013 ASEC files to see what has changed over that period. Specifically, the goal was to see how the reasons for not working have changed over that period.

Here are the overall figures:

The share of prime-age adults who worked at some point during the year declined about 6.1 percentage points between 1999 and 2013 (note this differs somewhat from LFP). The share of people who did not work during the year because they could not find work (unemployed) picked up around 1.6 points. The share of people who did not work during the year because they were ill or disabled also picked up about 1.6 points. The share of people not working because they are taking care of a family (caring) picked up 1.1 points. Students picked up 1 point. Retireds picked up 0.6 points. Other picked up 0.2 points.

Here is the same graph for men.

Here is the same graph for women.

It seems from this data at least that it's not any one thing. The points being shed from the working category are being soaked up in all the non-working categories with none particularly standing out.

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