Older Workers Report

The Unemployment Report: Waiting for Prosperity

February 6, 2015

 by Rick McGahey, SCEPA Faculty Fellow

rick mcgaheyEmployment for the first month of 2015 continued the steady growth from last year. 257,000 new jobs were added, and although the unemployment rate ticked up one-tenth of a percent to 5.7, that resulted from people entering the labor force to look for jobs—what economists call "labor force participation." Participation in December was at an historic low, so there's a long way to go to restore healthy levels there. 

Average hourly wages in January rose to $24.75, up half a percent from December (December's average wage rate actually declined). But wages are only 2.2% higher than one year ago. Weekly hours worked, however, were flat, at an average of 34.6 hours per week, the same as December, and virtually unchanged from last January's level of 34.4.

So jobs are being added at a steady pace—260,000 per month in 2014, the highest average monthly level since 1999. But the wage and hour data are not signaling any huge economic rebound or inflationary pressures. Make no mistake, this is still a lukewarm economy and labor market, and we are now 67 months into the recovery, above the 58-month average for recoveries since 1945. 

The weak wage and hour data are part of a longer running economic trend—declines in the "labor share" of GDP. The share of gross domestic income going to employee compensation peaked in 1970 at 58.4%, and has been on a steady decline since then. In recent years, that share rose to 55.3% in 2008, just before the Great Recession, falling to 52.1% in 2013. A weaker labor share means weaker overall consumption and consumer demand, and the economy will not grow strongly.

There are various theories about why the labor share has declined. Some blame technological substitution, especially the spread of information technology into all sectors of the economy. Other scholars emphasize the loss of good-paying jobs to trade and corporate outsourcing (NSSR Dean Will Milberg's recent book with Deborah Winkler makes a strong case for this). Labor share also is reduced by declining union power, and economic "financialization," as businesses retain profits, hoarding cash, buying back stock and paying dividends instead of making new productive investments. 

But all these factors pull in the same direction - a continuing shift in power towards business and away from labor. These longer-term forces are undercutting workers' bargaining power, so the steady job growth we are now seeing is not translating into higher wages. We need greater government investment to compensate for weak overall demand, and the Federal Reserve should not raise interest rates, as annual wage growth is very modest and well within their already conservative inflation targets.