John Tepper Marlin writes a very interesting blog over at CityEconomist dealing with local (New York) and international politics and public policy from an Economics point of view.

One of his recent posts was on the USA’s improving job figures in which he speculates that we might be seeing a structural change in work-force participation.  Those not working may not all be “discouraged workers” but members of society choosing to stay at home and, as Marlin wrote in an email to me this week, “maybe this is part of a conscious choice to reassert the values of family and home against those of the workplace.” An interesting suggestion and one that, if true, could be the start of a societal trend in the post-industrial west.  

Marlin’s post stems from the steadily improving US economy and its job figures. Marlin notes that: 

“The BLS jobs report for September [link is to the archived BLS News Release] supports the growing consensus that the economy is breaking out of its slow-growth mode. The payroll jobs increase is a healthy 248,000 – and would be 317,000 if we added in the BLS’s upward revisions in the July and August job numbers. Unemployment fell to 5.9 percent, falling for the first month since 2009 below 6 percent.”

This was the first time since 2009 that the unemployment rate in the USA dipped below 6%.  This figure does hide some large disparities between different ethnicities: the unemployment rate for Asians was only 4.3%, while that for blacks was 11%.  Marlin, in an update to his original post, then critiques in detail an article from the New York Times claiming that the lower unemployment rate may not “bolster Democrats” in the mid-term elections next month.  In the midst of that critique, Marlin discusses the percentage of working-age people with jobs (58%) and how that has not changed in four months and is at its lowest level since 1978.  Marlin comments that:

“The employment to population ratio is an aggregate number divided by a population estimate. A major reason it increased after 1978 is women were entering, and staying in, the work force in much greater numbers. Maybe we are seeing a long-term shift in how and where people work, and their preference for leisure and spending time at home – not just discouraged workers.”

In short, the number of people not working in the USA (41%) might be remaining at the same level, but its composition might be changing. There may well be fewer people seeking work and not finding it (and therefore showing up in the unemployment rate) and more people choosing not to work.  Marlin told me that: 

“…the steady trend toward lower labor-force participation may not just be “discouraged workers” as the NY Times assumes. The low labor force participation rate is viewed as horrible because it is back down to the level of 1978 – when women were still entering the work force in larger numbers…Maybe we are seeing a shift toward more leisure preference – earning enough rather than as much as possible – as the baby boomers start to enjoy their retirements and once again set the pace.”

This is an interesting analysis, not the least of which because it shows that 6% unemployment does not mean 6% of the population not working. There are many more people in the USA (and other nations) who are not working but are choosing to do so.  Perhaps for greater leisure, perhaps because they are doing other important things – like raising, caring for and nurturing a family.  These women (and men) are contributing just as much, actually more, to society and the economy by raising future citizens and taxpayers. And we all know how many countries are worried about where the next crop of those is going to come from!  If Marlin is correct, then maybe the drive that we feel in many western societies (one must work to be productive) is slowly weakening. Let us hope that that is the case and that the outlook is not as bleak as I suggested a couple of years ago

Marcus Roberts was two years out of law school when he decided that practising law was no longer for him. He therefore went back to university and did his LLM while tutoring. He now teaches contract and...