Wednesday, May 29, 2019

Jobs in developed economies

The Economist recently published an opinion piece on the status of work and jobs in developed economies that caught my attention. The topic of the piece - the success of today's labor market - is important due to its increased politicization and its implications for democracies in developed countries. Therefore this brief post will fact-check a few of the statements made in the article and provide a more comprehensive and accurate perspective on the labor market in developed economies. First, how well does the data support each of the following statements that were made in the article:
  1. Very low unemployment rates in developed economies - TRUE BUT MISLEADING. 
    • It is true that many developed economies have very low unemployment rates today. For an interactive look at the unemployment rate in OECD countries over the past several decades see here. Below is a screenshot from the interactive chart. This data shows that for many OECD countries, the unemployment rate today is lower today than at any point in the past thirty years. However, France and Southern European countries including Greece, Spain, and Italy are notable exceptions.
    • However, an analysis of the labor market that focuses on the unemployment rate without considering the labor force participation rate can be very misleading. I.e. is the unemployment rate very low because a significant proportion of the population has taken itself out of the labor market? Would these people accept a job if they were given one, despite not actively looking? In the U.S., labor force participation is lower than it was thirty years ago and it took a particularly significant hit in the aftermath of the Great Recession. In 1987, the labor force participation rate was 75 percent and it was 73 percent in 2017. The inactivity rate among working-aged men has risen from 14 to 20 percent over the same time period. Below is a screenshot from the interactive chart for labor force participation. This article explains why a recent rise in labor force participation this past year reflects a composition effect - meaning fewer people are leaving the labor force - rather than bringing people out of labor force back into it.          
    • The unemployment rate today is low by historical standards in many OECD countries - again the exceptions should be pointed out and the diversity within these developed economies should be acknowledged - but as an indicator it must be used in conjunction with the employment and labor force participation rates rather than as a standalone metric. 
  2. "Ever more women work" and women account for almost all the growth in the rich-world employment rate since 2007 - FALSE.
    • In the U.S., a decline in women's labor force participation is in part driving the overall decline mentioned above. This statistic adds a distributional dimension to this analysis that the article overlooks. In the U.S., specifically, labor force participation among women is lower today than in 1999 (which was the high point for women's labor force participation in the U.S.). For more on the declining labor force participation rate in the U.S., see this blog post on the topic. The below graph is taken from a BLS interactive page on labor force data. 
  3. "As for precariousness, in America traditional full-time jobs made up the same proportion of employment in 2017 as they did in 2005." - FALSE.
    • According to the OECD, full-time employment was 79 percent for men and 59 percent for women in 2005. The same figures for 2017 were 76 percent and 59 percent. 
    • Furthermore, just as unemployment rate was only one part of the picture to understand the trends in employment status, the full-time employment rate is only one part of the picture to understand labor market insecurity and the degree of job formalization. While this is not a statistic, this New York Times article from a few years ago exemplifies this point. It discusses the situation of two janitors: one who worked at Kodak in the 1980s and became a CTO of the company and the other who works at Apple today through a contracting company. The article details the aspects of job quality that are not captured by a simple full-time vs. part-time metric. In fact, OECD and ILO among other organizations have worked on measuring job quality. See Table 1 in this document that details the some of the measures of job quality: lifelong learning and career development, safety, ethics, working conditions, collective interest representation, and the stability and security of work. 
Not only do these statements provide a narrow and therefore misleading perspective on the labor market, building a case for a labor market that works for everyone requires research and evidence. The larger problem with this piece is that it does not put in the research and evidence required. Rather, it claims that now that the unemployment issue has been "settled" in developed countries (a questionable conclusion in and of itself), the public has moved on to a "series of complaints about the quality and direction of work" which are "less tangible and harder to judge than employment statistics." Most of our jobs as economists are to study things that are "less tangible and harder to judge".

George Akerlof has a forthcoming article in the Journal of Economic Literature entitled "Sins of Omission and the Practice of Economics" that discusses this bias against "important topics and problems when they are difficult to approach in a 'hard' way" with "hard" being defined as the ease or difficulty of producing precise work on a given topic. He argues that this bias within the discipline often leads to important topics being neglected at the expense of topics that can be more precisely studied. He provides several examples of situations in which the neglect of those topics that are more difficult to study precisely has led to an oversight in understanding. For example, he writes that in the lead-up to the Great Recession there were incentives to study the individual pieces of the recession puzzle but not to study them jointly.

On the theory side: "Following Caballero (2010), regarding theory, a model with all the pieces could not have been published; it would have been considered too far from precise, simple ideas (such as those that motivate simple new Keynesian or DSGE models); and, in this way, too Soft to merit publication." On the empirical side: "Regarding predictions from empirical evidence, the crucial data would have been of the wrong form... Even if she had uncovered, for instance, AIG's 533 billion dollars of commitments to insure securities such as CDS's, she would have still needed to turn it into the basis for a publishable paper. Those 533 billion dollars indicated tail risk of sufficient size to threaten a gigantic crash of the financial system; but it was only a single number. It was not the statistical evidence that typically underlies empirical papers in economics."

Akerlof's discussion has interesting parallels to this conversation on jobs in developed economies. Unemployment statistics are telling but they only tell one part of the story. The other part of the story - job quality, wages, and the working-poor rate - will likely better explain the dissatisfaction within developed economies that is driving the political shifts that we've seen in recent years. At the same time this other part of the story may be more complicated to study than unemployment statistics and, importantly for politicians, it may also be more complicated to discuss in the political arena. However, as the Times article poignantly illustrates, it should not be assumed that job quality has improved over the past few decades and the hypothesis that it has deteriorated - particularly for low-wage jobs - is a valid one that should be given its due consideration.


  1. I believe that (2) is in fact true. Female labor force participation in OECD countries is up since 2007:

    A welcome rebuttal in general - thanks!

  2. Thanks for your comment! You're right female labor force participation is up in OECD countries on the whole but down in the US - I think this is alluded to in the article as being driven by Europe: "That has something to do with pro-family policies in Europe, but since 2015 the trend is found in America, too." Thanks for reading and fact-checking.