by Scott Jennings
Scott Jennings, a CNN contributor, is a former special assistant to President George W. Bush and former campaign adviser to Sen. Mitch McConnell. He is a partner at RunSwitch Public Relations in Louisville, Kentucky. Follow him on Twitter @ScottJenningsKY. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.
(CNN)According to the latest jobs numbers released by the Labor Department on Friday, something wonderful is happening: Americans are reentering the labor force, growing the size of the labor market at rates not seen for over 15 years.
“More than 800,000 Americans joined the labor force in February … most bypassing unemployment and jumping straight into jobs. It was the largest one-month increase in the labor pool since 1983…” trumpeted the The Wall Street Journal in the wake of the thunderous jobs report, which showed a whopping 313,000 jobs added last month.
Why is this important? America has been facing a crisis of labor participation, which has been on a steady decline for several decades. To be counted in the labor force, a worker (over age 16) must be working or actively looking for work.
Labor participation rates peaked in January 2000, when the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported a rate of 67.3%. By January 2017, the rate had fallen by almost 5 points, an alarming reduction.
Some of the overall drop in labor participation results from an aging population. Baby boomers are getting older and retiring from the workforce. There’s also the issue of education, as more Americans delay entering the workforce to attain various post-high school degrees and certifications.
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But there’s no question that some folks just gave up altogether, which is a bad thing if you care about having a growing economy or an engaged population. This trend hit men especially hard, as Derek Thompson in The Atlantic, among others, has pointed out: “The share of prime-age men (ages 25-54) who are neither working nor looking for work has doubled since the 1970s,” he wrote midway through 2016.
Thompson goes on to cite an Obama administration economic report showing that these millions of missing men tend to be young and living in the South, are less likely to have children, are disproportionately black and less educated.
When people of prime working age check out of the economy, they check out of American life. They go off the grid as it relates to the things that generally make for a healthy society, like creating families and operating their lives with the sense of purpose that leads people to serve their communities.
More workers mean more production and more growth, and the eye-popping spike in labor participation perhaps indicates that increasing economic confidence is drawing some of these lost workers back into our economy.
This is especially welcome news for minority communities, which tend to have higher unemployment rates than white Americans. The Washington Post reported, for instance, that the “unemployment rate for black men is the lowest it has been since December 1973. Hispanic unemployment is still near its low.”
Disengaged citizens — absent the dignity that comes with working and being a productive member of society — may feel happier today (research indicates some younger disengaged citizens are perfectly content to sit in front of screens and video games all day in their parents’ basements), but ultimately will miss out on building lives that will make them happier when they become middle-aged.
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So let’s hope Friday’s good news on jobs and labor participation portends a reversal of a bad trend — Americans not working or looking for work. The prime age (25-54) labor participation rate sits at 82.2%, a number not seen since a swoon in this metric began in 2010 and after a slow and steady increase since December 2016.
Recovering this generation of lost workers and helping them forge productive lives for themselves, their families and their communities would be one of the best possible outcomes of the Trump presidency.
CNN · by Scott Jennings