Can We Blame Low Labor Participation on Past High Unemployment?

Fifth post in a series. Posts onetwothree and four.

We know that US GDP fell sharply in 2008-2009. We know that none of that decline has been made up by faster growth since the recession: GDP today is about 14 percent below the pre-2008 trend, a gap that shows no sign of closing. We also know that one-third of that shortfall is accounted for by slower productivity growth, and the remaining two-thirds by slower employment growth.

To put numbers on it: Over the past decade, US employment rose by a total of 6 percent, or about 0.5 percent per year. This is about half the rate of employment growth over the last ten years before the recession, and less a quarter the average rate for the postwar period as a whole. 2000-2010 was the first decade since the Depression in which US employment actually fell. Since the unemployment rate today is very close to that of ten years ago, this whole slowdown is accounted for by a decline in laborforce participation.

Employment growth, unlike productivity growth, was already slowing prior to the recession, and  pre-recession forecasts predicted a further slowdown comparable to what actually occurred. This is consistent with a widely-held view that the slowdown in employment is the result of demographic and other structural factors, not of the recession or demand weakness in general. In the next couple posts, I want to take a critical look at this claim. How confident should we be that employment would be the same today in a counterfactual world where the 2008-2009 didn’t happen? How responsive might employment be to stronger demand going forward? And more broadly, how much do changes in laborforce participation seem to be explained by more or less exogenous factors like demographics, and how much by demand and labor-market conditions?

The rest of this post is about an approach to this question that did not produce the results I was hoping for. So I probably won’t include this material in whatever paper comes out of these posts. But as we feel our way into reality it’s important to note down the dead ends as well as the routes that seem promising. And even though this exercise didn’t help much in answering the big questions posed in the previous paragraph, it’s still interesting in its own right.


Can the fall in laborforce participation be explained as a direct, predictable effect of the rise in unemployment during the recession? It seems like maybe it can. The starting point is the observation that unemployed workers are much more likely to drop out of the laborforce than people with jobs are. You can see this clearly in the BLS tables on employment transitions. As the figure below shows, about 3 percent of employed people exit the laborforce each month, a fraction that has been remarkably stable since the data begins in 1990. Meanwhile, about 20 percent of unemployed people drop out of the laborforce each month.


On the face of it, this 17-point difference suggests an important role for the unemployment rate in changes in labor force participation. All else equal, each year-point of additional unemployment should reduce the labor-force participation rate by two points. (0.17 x 12 = 2.) So you would think that much of the recent fall in laborforce participation could be explained simply by the rise in unemployment during the recession.

When I thought of this it seemed very logical. It would be easy to do a counterfactual exercise, I thought, showing how laborforce participation would have evolved simply based on the historical transition rates between employment, unemployment and out of the laborforce, and the actual evolution of employment and unemployment. If you could show that something like the actual fall in laborforce participation was a predictable result of the rise in unemployment during the recession, that would support the idea that demand rather than “structural” factors are at work. And even if it wasn’t that strong positive evidence, it would suggest skepticism about similar counterfactual exercises using historical participation rates by age and so on.

I mean, it makes sense, right? Unemployed people are much more likely to leave the workforce than employed people, so a rise in unemployment should naturally lead to a decline in laborforce participation. But as the figure below shows, the numbers don’t work.

What I did was start with the populations of employe, unemployed and not-in-the-laborforce people at the end of the recession in December 2009. Then I created a counterfactual scenario for the remaining period using the actual transition rates between employment and unemployment but the pre-recession average rates for transitions between not in the workforce and unemployment and employment. In other words, just knowing the average rates that people move between employment, unemployment and out of the workforce, and the actual shifts between employment and unemployment, what path would you have predicted for laborforce participation over 2010-2016?

transitions2The heavy gray line shows the historical fraction of the population aged 16 and over who are not in the laborforce. The black line shows the results of the counterfactual exercise. Not very close.

There turn out to be two reasons why the counterfactual exercise gives such a poor fit. Both are interesting and neither was obvious before doing the exercise. The first reason is that there are  surprisingly large flows from out of the labor force back into it. Per the BLS, about 7 percent of people who report being out of the labor force in a given month are either employed or unemployed (i.e. actively seeking work) the following month. This implies that the typical duration of being out of the workforce is less than a year — though of course this is a mix of people who leave the workforce for just a month or two and people who leave for good. For present purposes, the important thing is that exogenous changes to the employment-population ratio decline quickly, with a half-life of only about a year. So while the historical data suggests that a rise in unemployment like we saw in 2008-2009 should have been associated with a large rise in the share of the population not in the laborforce, it also suggests that this effect should have been transitory — a couple years after unemployment rates returned to normal, participation rates should have as well. This is not what we’ve seen.

The large gross movements in and out of the laborforce mean that sustained lower participation rates can’t be straightforwardly understood as the “echo” of high unemployment in the past. But they do also tend to undermine the structural story — if the typical stint outside the laborforce lasts less than a year it can hardly be due to something immutable.

The second reason why the counterfactual doesn’t fit the data was even more surprising, at least to me. I constructed my series using the historical average transition rates into and out of the workforce. But transition rates during the recession and early recovery departed from the historical average in an important way: unemployed workers were significantly less likely to exit the workforce. This turns out to be the normal pattern, at least over the previous two business cycles — if you look back to that first figure, you can see dips in the transition rate from unemployed to out of the workforce in the early 1990s and early 2000s downturns as well. The relationship is clearer in the next figure, a scatter of the unemployment rate and the share of unemployed workers leaving the workforce each month.



As you can see, there is a strong negative relationship — when unemployment was around 4 percent in 1999-2000 and again in 2006-2007, about a quarter of the unemployed exited the laborforce each month. But at the peak of the past recession when unemployment reached 10 percent, only 18 percent of the unemployed left the laborforce each month. That might not seem like a huge difference, but it’s enough to produce quite different dynamics. It’s also a bit surprising, since you would think that people would be more likely to give up searching for work when unemployment is high than when when it is low. The obvious explanation would be that the people who are out of work when the unemployment rate is low are not simply a smaller set of the same people who are out of work when the rate is high, but are different in some way. The same factors that keep them at the back of the hiring queue may make also be likely to push them out of the laborforce altogether. Extended unemployment insurance might also play a role.

It would be possible to explore this further using CPS data, which is the source for the BLS tables I’m working with. No doubt there are papers out there describing the different characteristics of the unemployed in periods of high versus low unemployment. (Not being a labor economist, I don’t know this literature.) But I am going to leave it here.

Summary: The fact that unemployed people are much more likely to leave the laborforce than employed people are, suggests that some part of the fall in laborforce particiaption since 2008 might be explained by the lingering effects of high unemployment in the recession and early recovery. But this story turns out not tow work, for two reasons. First, the rapid turnover of the not in the laborforce population means that this direct effect of high unemployment on participation is fairly shortlived. Second, the rate at which unemployed people exit the laborforce turns out to be lower when unemployment is high. Together, these two factors produce the results shown in the second figure — the fall in participation you would predict based simply on high unemployment is steeper but shorter-lived than what actually occurred. The first factor — the large flows in and out of the laborforce — while it vitiates the simple story I proposed here, is consistent with a broader focus on demand rather than demographics as an explanation for slow employment growth. If people are frequently moving in and out of the laborforce, it’s likely that their decisions are influenced by their employment prospects, and it means they’re not determined by fixed characteristics like age. The second factor — that unemployed people were less likely to give up looking for jobs during 2009-2011, as in previous periods of high unemployment — is, to me, more surprising, and harder to fit into a demand-side story.