Abraham and Kearney on the Decline in Employment

Katherine Abraham and Melissa Kearney just published
“Explaining the Decline in the US Employment-to-Population Ratio: A Review of the Evidence” in the Journal of Economic Literature.

The unemployment rate measures people who are actively looking for work and can’t find a job. The authors are not examining short term fluctuations in unemployment (which shot up in pandemic times). They are looking at at long term decline in employment rates of working-age adults in the US. The trend began in 1999. Employment of adults in the US dipped after the Great Recession and still has not recovered a decade later. Less-educated males have experienced the largest drop in employment.

I’m reviewing the entire paper with my Labor Economics class. Most of what the authors talk about can be found throughout our Labor Econ. textbook, but I like using the paper to organize and motivate the collection of facts and theories.

Here’s a summary of their thorough examination of possible causes of the decline in working.

They estimate, drawing on other empirical work, that two factors have a considerable and measurable impact on the decline in formal employment. Import competition from China (the US changed their position on trade with China in 2000) and automation (industrial robots) both result in lower demand for US workers.

There are three contributing forces that the authors declare them to be minor casual factors. Increased receipt of disability benefits disincentivizes working, higher minimum wages results in less jobs, and the increased incarceration rate in the past few decades takes adults out of the labor force.

The paper is called “A Review of the Evidence”. The following is a list of factors that could in theory be responsible for the decline for working but for which data is scarce:
Lack of child care
Changes in leisure options (i.e. young men play video games)
Changes in social norms (i.e. young people can stay “in the basement”)
Increased use of opioids (could be a result of diminished job opportunities)
Rise in occupational licensing
Frictions or matching issues

All of those indeterminate items represent research opportunities.

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