Friday, August 20, 2010

Male Labor Force Composition

This morning, I have a few graphs of the breakdown of the US male population aged 25-54.  The data are quarterly, seasonally adjusted, and from the BLS Current Population Survey.  Above shows the basic data - the fraction of that population that is employed, officially unemployed, or just fallen out of the labor force altogether.  The following points seem of interest:

  1. 1970 was the year when the leading edge of the baby boom turned 25.  Note that the size of the population in this age band starts to climb steeply for here.
  2. In 2000, the leading edge of the baby boom turned 55, and the size of the population has been growing more slowly since then (or even a little before - heart attacks?).  Recently, this population is almost flat.
  3. Note that the initial effect of the great recession is initially to boost the size of the unemployed slice (red), but now it's mainly causing people to leave the labor force altogether.
Next up is the same data, only showing the breakdown between the three categories.

You can see that while the fraction unemployed shrinks and grows with each boom and bust, the not-in-labor-force category just continues to grow steadily.


Gary said...

When people are no longer in the work force are they just sitting at home doing nothing? I doubt it. I think we are seeing a gradual transition towards a cash and barter based alternative economy that doesn't show up on the BLS statistics. My two cents here:

Burk said...

Fantastic graphs, Stuart!

One interpretation might be that the last few decades have seen unemployment used increasingly as a core economic policy, to fight inflation and keep labor in line. This has led to the higher level of discouraged and under-the-radar workers you see (especially in minority communities). It is hard to make the case that there are more off-the-books workers now than in the heyday of organized crime, but data on that would be interesting.

At any rate, government policy has gradually switched from one of full employment in the 50's/60's, to using recessions as a policy tool today against inflation. This corresponds to the ascendence of monetarism over Keynesianism. I think we need to get back to a sobered-up Keynesianism.

Stuart Staniford said...


Yeah, that's an excellent question that I want to blog about further in future. I understand that labor economists believe that there is have been a big growth in the number of men classified as disabled, so that's one thing to look at (but I haven't quite got clean data on it yet). There's also the underground economy as Burk notes. The illegal drug trade is pretty big and has got to support a lot of people, in addition to under-the-table type payment arrangements for work that is otherwise legit (eg quite a bit of construction in rural areas happens this way, at least on the anecdotal evidence available to me). Then there's the possibility of various forms of "house-husband" being economically supported by women (ranging from guys who really do pull their weight fully in the domestic sector, to slackers who don't).

Greg said...

Um, doesn't the US have the largest prison population in the world, both in absolute terms and as a fraction of the adult population?

Wikipedia says it's 3.2% of adult residents. Given that it's overwhelmingly male, it could be 6% of adult males.

Also, I'm not sure whether military personnel are "in the labor force".

Greg said...

Correction - that 3.2% includes people on probation.

Further down, the article says "[in 2008] approximately one in every 18 men in the United States is behind bars", and in 2002 93.2% of prisoners were male. 

Thrundal said...

Here's a website that gives a pretty informative history of incarceration in the United States.

Stuart Staniford said...


You're quite right - the BLS stats are of the "Civilian noninstitutional population" and so the graphs above explicitly exclude prisoners and folks committed to asylums.