The 2010s may have begun with one of the weakest job markets since the Great Depression and fears of double-digit unemployment. But it ended with a U.S. jobless rate of 3.5% in December 2019, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics released on Friday. Unemployment in the United States is now technically at its lowest level since the late 1960s, though persistent inequalities have grown and concerns have risen about the growth of the working poor and wage stagnation in many professions and demographics.
Despite a slight drop for 2019, the economy has been surprisingly consistent over the past eight years in relatively constant job growth. However, in December, payroll and wage growth missed expectations, with nonfarm new hires declining to just 145,000, down from more than 300,000 as recently as January 2019, and below the expectation of 160,000 new jobs.
But with a combination of an increasing share of part-time work and wages that are not rising as quickly for less than obvious reasons, these numbers belie a somewhat weaker actual condition.
During much of the economic expansion of the 2010s, skeptics have emphasized that there are many discouraged workers on the sidelines who are avoiding the labor market, thus making the unemployment rate seem much lower than the reality. And underemployment – such as part-time jobs in lieu of full-time work – has been significant in much of the decade.
But even on those counts, conditions are better than they have been in some time. A separate measure taking into account underemployment and labor force non-participation reveals the best employment situation in the U.S. since 1994, with a 6.7% jobless rate.
Still, 2019 was, as a whole, the weakest year for new job creation since 2011, with only 2.1 million new jobs added. Manufacturing employment particularly continues to weaken.
Slowdowns in job growth are common as the economic cycle reaches a peak – the best performance before a downturn begins. Many observers believe we are nearing that point today, though there also does not appear to be a catalyst for an outright downturn, leaving the short-term outlook uncertain.
How Low Can You Go? Can Joblessness Fall Further?
So how low can unemployment reasonably go? While joblessness is much lower than some analysts expected even a few years ago, many say wages would be rising faster if the economy were truly at full employment, suggesting that there is still room for job growth.
As the measure resulting in a 6.7% real jobless rate demonstrates, even during the good times in the last quarter century, there has been chronic underemployment, with fewer full-time jobs and a rise in part-time employment that often provides few if any benefits and less security. This is becoming the case even in white-collar employment, much less in traditionally part-time focused fields such as retail, agriculture or freelance roles.
“It’s actually quite surprising how stable job growth has been. Numbers may have been a little lower in 2019 than in 2018 but there doesn’t seem to be evidence of any giant reversal,” notes Nick Huntington-Klein, Mihaylo College Assistant Professor of Economics. “The real question is what’s going on with wages. I think it seems likely that we’re going to find out relatively soon what more-or-less full employment looks like in the current economy, and it may be different than the way we’ve thought about it in the past. The increasing preponderance of part-time work may be at the center of that, but it’s not certain.”
Some analysts have been consistently incorrect in their views that full employment had been reached (check out this article from 2016). As new jobs have continued to be created over the last few years and the jobless rate has declined steadily, it has demonstrated that there is still room for employment – especially full-time stable employment – to grow.