This month’s unemployment report was essentially the same as the last few dozen before it. Unemployment ticked slightly downward again, but much of that decline came from people “leaving” the labor force.
Labor force participation peaked in the ’90’s and has been in decline ever since, but the aggregate numbers hide a long secular trend. We should be re-evaluating the emphasis we place on that metric as the meaning and significance of employment, both culturally and economically, has been changing for a very long time.
When you look at employment statistics over the long term you see modern post-industrial capitalism at work, or perhaps more accurately – not at work. We’ve been measuring labor participation since the ’50’s. White males are the only segment of the workforce that has had full access to labor markets across that period, so looking at their participation rates gives the only indication of long term trends.
Labor market participation by white males has been in steady decline for as long as we have measured it. Our workforce is shrinking because of a relentless rise of affluence and automation that has been in motion for centuries now. Menial work is steadily disappearing. The careers that remain available are generally much more highly compensated, start later and end earlier in life. In short, the most successful people in the work force are working less than ever. Fewer and fewer job options of any kind remain for those who do not snag one of those careers.