Here’s What the Labor Market Really Looks Like

There’s not a whole lot going on today, so here’s another chart about the economy for you. It shows the percentage of prime working-age adults who have jobs:

Over the previous two economic cycles (1990-2000 and 2000-2008), this number averaged 79.8 percent. Today it’s 78.7 percent. So we still have some ground to make up just to reach the average of past cycles. At the top of the cycle, we ought to be around 81 percent or so.

One of the problems with this statistic is that it can fluctuate depending on how many young workers go to college and how many older workers are retiring. As the baby boomers retire, for example, we should expect the overall ratio to drop steadily. This is why it’s best to look only at 25-54 year-olds. These are the folks who are out of school and aren’t retired, so they provide a pretty good look at how the labor market is doing.

When you put this together with sluggish wage growth for middle-income workers, it shows that we still have some slack in the labor market even though the headline unemployment rate is a very healthy 4.3 percent. At the rate things are improving, we ought to have another three years of expansion left before the economy tops out. But will we?