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Jobless Recoveries Are Becoming the Norm

David Callahan

Another monthly jobs report is in, and the results are better than most people expected: 236,000 new jobs were created last month. That's the best economic news we've heard in a while.  

Now for the reality check: Yes, the economy is adding jobs, but not enough to keep up with all the new young workers entering the labor force every year. In just a few months, high schools and colleges will dump several million more would-be workers into the labor force. A great many of them won't find jobs, joining the ranks of millions of other young people who have graduated in recent years and haven't found work -- not to mention all the people laid off when the financial crisis hit who are still unemployed. 

Think of the jobs market as a super highway where an accident has left just one lane open. The cops may be waving cars through faster now, but more motorists keep pouring onto the road, and the backup grows longer and longer. 

The most illuminating part of the Labor Department's monthly jobs release is always found in the appendix: "Table A15: Alternative Measures of Labor Underutilization." Here you find the real number of people out of work in the U.S. 

While the official unemployment rate, or U-3, was 7.7 percent last month, another measure -- U-6 -- find that 14.3 percent of workers can't find full-time work. The U-6 number, BLS says, covers:

Total unemployed, plus all persons marginally attached to the labor force, plus total employed part time for economic reasons, as a percent of the civilian labor force plus all persons marginally attached to the labor force

Last month, that category included over 20 million people. This number is so important because U-3 is an utter contrivance that doesn't include people who have just given up looking for work.  But even U-6 may not adequately convey how bad things are. A stunning 99 million Americans overall are not in the labor force and it's really anyone's guess exactly how many of these people would be working if they could be. 

Anyway, now on to the main point of this post: Which is that, despite this month's positive labor report, we are still in a jobless recovery.

The Economist had this to say about a jobless recovery: "Why is the job market so weak even though the economy is (just) growing? A big reason is the continued impressive growth in productivity. Ever more efficient firms need ever fewer workers. . . "

Those words were written in May 2003. Back then, everyone was talking about the "jobless recovery." And many commentators at that time noted that the President George W. Bush wasn't the first president to preside over a jobless recovery. His father had as well, in 1992. 

Basically, modern U.S. economic downturns seem to go like this: A recession hits, throwing lots of people out of work. Corporations respond through belt-tightening and trying to do more with less, increasing productivity. New technology helps that effort. The economy starts to come back, and profits rise. But companies have figured out how to get by with fewer workers and so they don't rehire in droves. 

That's where we are today. And we've been here before. Yet this time around, technology is further along and companies are more adept at outsourcing and other strategies to keep their labor costs down. 

Eventually, the problem may not be jobless recoveries. It may be a jobless future.