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How Low Is the Unemployment Rate, Really?
In 2017, the unemployment rate averaged 4.4 percent. That's quite low on a historical basis. In fact, it's the lowest level since 2000, when unemployment averaged 4.0 percent. But does that mean that the labor market is only 0.4 percentage points away from being as strong as it was in 2000? Probably not. Let's talk about why.
As observed by economist George Perry in 1970, although movement in the aggregate unemployment rate is mostly the result of changes in unemployment rates within demographic groups, demographic shifts can also change the overall unemployment rate even if unemployment within demographic groups has not changed. Adjusting for demographic changes makes for a better apples-to-apples comparison of unemployment today with past rates.
Three large demographic shifts underway since the early 2000s are the rise in the average age and educational attainment of the labor force, and the decline in the share who are white and non-Hispanic. These changes are potentially important because older workers and those with more education have lower rates of unemployment across age and education groups respectively, and white non-Hispanics tend to have lower rates of unemployment than other ethnicities.
The following chart shows the results of a demographic adjustment that jointly controls for year-to-year changes in two sex, three education, four race/ethnicity, and six age labor force groups, (see here for more details). Relative to the year 2000, the unemployment rate in 2017 is about 0.6 percentage points lower than it would have been otherwise simply because the demographic composition of the labor force has changed (depicted by the blue line in the chart).
In other words, even though the 2017 unemployment rate is only 0.4 percentage points higher than in 2000, the demographically adjusted unemployment rate (the green line in the chart) is 1.0 percentage points higher. In terms of unemployment, after adjusting for changes in the composition of the labor force, we are not as close to the 2000 level as you might have thought.
The demographic discrepancy is even larger for the broader U6 measure of unemployment, which includes marginally attached and involuntarily part-time workers. The 2017 demographically adjusted U6 rate is 2.5 percentage points higher than in 2000, whereas the unadjusted U6 rate is only 1.5 percentage points higher. That is, on a demographically adjusted basis, the economy had an even larger share of marginally attached and involuntarily part-time workers in 2017 than in 2000.
The point here is that when comparing unemployment rates over long periods, it's advisable to use a measure that is reasonably insulated from demographic changes. However, you should also keep in mind that demographics are only one of several factors that can cause fluctuation. Changes in labor market and social policies, the mix of industries, as well as changes in the technology of how people find work can also result in changes to how labor markets function. This is one reason why estimates of the so-called natural rate of unemployment are quite uncertain and subject to revision. For example, participants at the December 2012 Federal Open Market Committee meeting had estimates for the unemployment rate that would prevail over the longer run ranging from 5.2 to 6.0 percent. At the December 2017 meeting, the range of estimates was almost a whole percentage point lower at 4.3 to 5.0 percent.
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