Research: Much of Recent Decline in Labor Force Participation Rate due to “ongoing structural influences”

For several years, I’ve been arguing that “most of the recent decline in the participation rate” was due to demographics and other long term structural trends (like more education). This is an important issue because if most of the decline had been due to cyclical weakness, then we’d expect a significant increase in participation as the economy improved. If the decline was due to demographics and other long term trends, then the participation rate might keep falling (or flatten out) as the economy improves.

 Note: So far this year, the participation rate has moved sideways at 62.8% – probably because demographics and other long term factors are being offset by people returning to the labor force this year.  However, looking forward, the participation rate should continue to decline for the next couple of decades.

From Federal Reserve researchers Stephanie Aaronson, Tomaz Cajner, Bruce Fallick, Felix Galbis-Reig, Christopher L. Smith, and William Wascher: Labor Force Participation: Recent Developments and Future Prospects

The evidence we present in this paper suggests that much of the steep decline in the labor force participation rate since 2007 owes to ongoing structural influences that are pushing down the participation rate rather than a pronounced cyclical weakness related to potential jobseekers’ discouragement about the weak state of the labor market – in many ways a similar message as was conveyed in the 2006 Brookings Paper. Most prominently, the ongoing aging of the babyboom generation into ages with traditionally lower attachment to the labor force can, by itself, account for nearly half of the decline. In addition, estimates from our model, as well as the supplementary evidence on which we report, show persistent declines in participation rates for some specific age/sex categories that appear to have their roots in longer-run changes in the labor market that pre-date the financial crisis by a decade or more.

In particular, participation rates among youths have been declining since the mid-1990s, in part reflecting the higher returns to education documented extensively by other researchers, but also, we believe, some crowding out of job opportunities for young workers associated with the decline in middle-skill jobs and thus greater competition for the low-skilled jobs traditionally held by teenagers and young adults. Such “polarization” effects also appear to have weighed on the participation of less-educated prime-age men and, more recently, prime-age women. In contrast, increasing longevity and better health status, coupled with changes in social security rules and increased educational attainment, have contributed to an ongoing rise in the participation rates of older individuals, but these increases have not been large enough to provide much offset to the various downward influences on the aggregate participation rate.

That is not to say that all of the decline in labor force participation reflects structural influences. Our cohort-based model suggests that cyclical weakness was depressing the participation rate by about ¼ percentage point in 2014:Q2, while evidence from cross-state regressions suggests that the contribution of cyclical weakness could be as much as 1 percentage point. The greater cyclicality evidenced in the cross-state regressions could be capturing some of the features of the current labor market we discussed outside the context of the model, such as the unusually high level of those out of the labor force who want a job, or any unusual cyclicality in youth participation or retirement.

Looking ahead, demographics will likely continue to play a prominent role in determining the future path of the aggregate labor force participation rate. The youngest members of the baby-boom generation are still in their early fifties, and thus the effects of population aging will continue to put downward pressure on the participation rate for some time. Indeed, on our estimates, the continued aging of the population alone will subtract 2½ percentage points from the aggregate participation rate over the next ten years. And the overall downtrend could be even larger if some of the negative trends evident for particular age-sex groups persist.

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