Posts Tagged ‘underemployment’


Does anyone really need any additional evidence of the lopsided nature of the current recovery?

Employers certainly don’t. They’re managing to hire additional workers, thus lowering the unemployment rate. But they don’t have to pay the workers they hire much more than they were getting before, with wages barely staying ahead of the rate of inflation. As a result, corporate profits continue to grow.

Clearly, what we’re seeing remains a one-sided recovery: employers are getting ahead—and their workers are still being left behind.

According to the latest report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, total nonfarm payroll employment increased by 164,000 in April, thus reducing the headline unemployment rate to 3.9 percent and the expanded or U6 unemployment rate (which includes, in addition, marginally attached workers and those who are working part-time for economic reasons) to 7.4 percent.* Meanwhile, average hourly earnings of private-sector production and nonsupervisory employees increased by only 5 cents in April—an annual rate of just 2.7 percent (just a bit more than the current inflation rate of 2.5 percent).

Sure, employers complain that they can’t hire the workers they need—persistent gripes that are dutifully reported in the business press. They may even be paying one-time bonuses. But they’re certainly not increasing wages in order to attract the kinds of workers they say they want.

That’s because they don’t have to. Most of the new jobs are being created in sectors—like professional and technical services (an additional 25.8 thousand jobs in April), temporary help services (10.3 thousand), health care (24.4 thousand), machinery (8.4 thousand), and accommodation and food services (18.9 thousand)—where there are plenty of still-underemployed workers to go around. In addition, most of those workers are not represented by unions, and therefore aren’t in a position to negotiate for higher wages.** The decline in government jobs means there’s little competition for the nation’s workers. And employers continue to have the option of automation and offshoring, which also keeps workers’ wages in check.

So, employers in the United States are able to advertise jobs that pay $10, $12, or $20 an hour, which desperate workers are forced to have the freedom to take—because, within the existing set of economic institutions, the alternatives are even worse.

American employers, with their higher profits and new tax cuts, could be paying higher wages. But they’re choosing not to.***

For them, it’s certainly been a beautiful recovery.


*After revisions, job gains in the United States have averaged 208,000 over the last 3 months.

**However, one group of workers without union representation—teachers—have decided to initiate strikes and other work stoppages to respond to cuts in their wages and education budgets. As North Caroline kindergarten teacher Kristin Beller explained, “We are done being the frog that is being boiled.”

***Except, of course, the portion of the surplus they have been distributing to their CEOs.


The economic crises that came to a head in 2008 and the massive response—by the U.S. government and corporations themselves—reshaped the world we live in.* Although sectors of the U.S. economy are still in one of their longest expansions, most people recognize that the recovery has been profoundly uneven and the economic gains have not been fairly distributed.

The question is, what has changed—and, equally significant, what hasn’t—during the past decade?


Let’s start with U.S. stock markets, which over the course of less than 18 months, from October 2007 to March 2009, dropped by more than half. And since then? As is clear from the chart above, stocks (as measured by the Dow Jones Composite Average) have rebounded spectacularly, quadrupling in value (until the most recent sell-off). One of the reasons behind the extraordinary bull market has been monetary policy, which through normal means and extraordinary measures has transferred debt and put a great deal of inexpensive money in the hands of banks, corporations, and wealth investors.


The other major reason is that corporate profits have recovered, also in spectacular fashion. As illustrated in the chart above, corporate profits (before tax, without adjustments) have climbed almost 250 percent from their low in the third quarter of 2008. Profits are, of course, a signal to investors that their stocks will likely rise in value. Moreover, increased profits allow corporations themselves to buy back a portion of their stocks. Finally, wealthy individuals, who have managed to capture a large share of the growing surplus appropriated by corporations, have had a growing mountain of cash to speculate on stocks.

Clearly, the United States has experienced a profit-led recovery during the past decade, which is both a cause and a consequence of the stock-market bubble.


The crash and the Second Great Depression, characterized by the much-publicized failures of large financial institutions such as Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers, raised a number of concerns about the rise in U.S. bank asset concentration that started in the 1990s. Today, as can be seen in the chart above, those concentration ratios (the 3-bank ratio in purple, the 5-bank ratio in green) are even higher. The top three are JPMorgan Chase (which acquired Bear Stearns and Washington Mutual), Bank of America (which purchased Merrill Lynch), and Wells Fargo (which took over Wachovia, North Coast Surety Insurance Services, and Merlin Securities), followed by Citigroup (which has managed to survive both a partial nationalization and a series of failed stress tests), and Goldman Sachs (which managed to borrow heavily, on the order of $782 billion in 2008 and 2009, from the Federal Reserve). At the end of 2015 (the last year for which data are available), the 5 largest “Too Big to Fail” banks held nearly half (46.5 percent) of the total of U.S. bank assets.


Moreover, in the Trump administration as in the previous two, the revolving door between Wall Street and the entities in the federal government that are supposed to regulate Wall Street continues to spin. And spin. And spin.

median income

As for everyone else, they’ve barely seen a recovery. Real median household income in 2016 was only 1.5 percent higher than it was before the crash, in 2007.


That’s because, even though the underemployment rate (the annual average rate of unemployed workers, marginally attached workers, and workers employed part-time for economic reasons as a percentage of the civilian labor force plus marginally attached workers, the blue line in the chart) has fallen in the past ten years, it is still very high—9.6 percent in 2016. In addition, the share of low-wage jobs (the percentage of jobs in occupations with median annual pay below the poverty threshold for a family of four, the orange line) remains stubbornly elevated (at 23.3 percent) and the wage share of national income (the green line) is still less than what it was in 2009 (at 43 percent)—and far below its postwar high (of 50.9 percent, in 1969).

Clearly, the recovery that corporations, Wall Street, and owners of stocks have engineered and enjoyed during the past 10 years has largely bypassed American workers.


One of the consequences of the lopsided recovery is that the distribution of income—already obscenely unequal prior to the crash—has continued to worsen. By 2014 (the last year for which data are available), the share of pretax national income going to the top 1 percent had risen to 20.2 percent (from 19.9 percent in 2007), while that of the bottom 90 percent had fallen to 53 percent (from 54.2 percent in 2007). In other words, the rising income share of the top 1 percent mirrors the declining share of the bottom 90 percent of the distribution.


The distribution of wealth in the United States is even more unequal. The top 1 percent held 38.6 percent of total household wealth in 2016, up from 33.7 percent in 2007, that of the next 9 percent more or less stable at 38.5 percent, while that of the bottom 90 percent had shrunk even further, from 28.6 percent to 22.8 percent.

So, back to my original question: what has—and has not—changed over the course of the past decade?

One area of the economy has clearly rebounded. Through their own efforts and with considerable help from the government, the stock market, corporate profits, Wall Street, and the income and wealth of the top 1 percent have all recovered from the crash. It’s certainly been their kind of recovery.

And they’ve recovered in large part because everyone else has been left behind. The vast majority of people, the American working-class, those who produce but don’t appropriate the surplus: they’ve been forced, within desperate and distressed circumstances, to shoulder the burden of a recovery they’ve had no say in directing and from which they’ve been mostly excluded.

The problem is, that makes the current recovery no different from the run-up to the crash itself—grotesque levels of inequality that fueled the bloated profits on both Main Street and Wall Street and a series of speculative asset bubbles. And the current recovery, far from correcting those tendencies, has made them even more obscene.

Thus, ten years on, U.S. capitalism has created the conditions for renewed instability and another, dramatic crash.


*In a post last year, I called into question any attempt to precisely date the beginning of the crises.


Apparently, “late capitalism” is the term that is being widely used to capture and make sense of the irrational and increasingly grotesque features of contemporary economy and society. There’s even a recent novel, A Young Man’s Guide to Late Capitalism, by Peter Mountford.

A reader [ht: ra] wrote in wanting to know what I thought about the label, which is admirably surveyed and discussed in a recent Atlantic article by Anne Lowrey.

I’ll admit, I’m suspicious of “late capitalism” (like other such catchall phrases), for two main reasons. First, it presumes and invokes a stage theory of development, which relies on identifying certain “laws of motion” of capitalist history. That’s certainly the way Ernest Mandel understood and developed the term—as the latest in a series of necessary stages of capitalist development. For me, the history of capitalism is too contingent and unpredictable to obey such law-like regularity. Second, “late capitalism” is meant to characterize all of a certain stage of economy and society, thereby invoking a notion of totality. Like other such phrases—I’m thinking, in particular, of “globalization,” “empire,” and “neoliberalism”—the idea is that the entire world, or at least what are considered to be its essential elements, can be captured by the term. As I see it, capitalism exists only in some parts of the world, some but certainly not all economic and social spaces, and, even when and where it does exist, it assumes distinct forms and operates in different modalities. Using a term like “late capitalism” tends to iron out all those differences.

So, I’m wary of the notion of “late capitalism,” which for both reasons may lead us astray in terms of making sense of and responding to what is going on in the world today.

At the same time, I remain sympathetic to the idea that “late capitalism” effectively captures at least some dimensions of contemporary economic and social reality. Here in the United States, there’s clearly something late—both exhausted and exhausting—about contemporary capitalism. In the wake of the worst crises since the first Great Depression, growth rates remains low, leaving millions of workers either unemployed or underemployed. Wages continue to stagnate, even as corporate profits and the stock market soar. And the unequal distribution of income and wealth, having become increasingly obscene in recent decades, has ushered in a new Gilded Age.

As Lowrey explains,

“Late capitalism” became a catchall for incidents that capture the tragicomic inanity and inequity of contemporary capitalism. Nordstrom selling jeans with fake mud on them for $425. Prisoners’ phone calls costing $14 a minute. Starbucks forcing baristas to write “Come Together” on cups due to the fiscal-cliff showdown.

And, of course, the election of Donald Trump.

What is less clear is if “late capitalism” carries with it a hint of revolution, whether it contains something akin to the idea that the contradictions of capitalism create the possibility of a radical alternative. Even if contemporary capitalism is exhausted and we, witnessing and being subjected to its absurdities and indignities, are being exhausted by it—that doesn’t mean “late capitalism” will generate the political forces required for its being replaced by a radically different way of organizing economic and social life.

But perhaps that’s asking too much of the concept. If it merely serves to galvanize new ways of thinking, to recommit us to the task of a “ruthless criticism of everything existing,” then we’ll be moving in the right direction.

Greg Kahn

I am quite willing to admit that, based on last Friday’s job report, the Second Great Depression is now over.

As regular readers know, I have been using the analogy to the Great Depression of the 1930s to characterize the situation in the United States since late 2007. Then as now, it was not a recession but, instead, a depression.

As I explain to my students in A Tale of Two Depressions, the National Bureau of Economic Research doesn’t have any official criteria for distinguishing an economic depression from a recession. What I offer them as an alternative are two criteria: (a) being down (as against going down) and (b) the normal rules are suspended (as, e.g., in the case of the “zero lower bound” and the election of Donald Trump).

By those criteria, the United States experienced a second Great Depression starting in December 2007 and continuing through April 2017. That’s almost a decade of being down and suspending the normal rules!

Now, with the official unemployment rate having fallen to 4.4 percent, equal to the low it had reached in May 2007, we can safely say the Second Great Depression has come to an end.

However, that doesn’t mean we’re out of the woods, or that we can forget about the effects of the most recent depression on American workers.*


For example, while Gross Domestic Product per capita in the United States is higher now than it was at the end of 2007 ($51,860 versus $49,586, in chained 2009 dollars, or 4.6 percent), it is still much lower than it would have been had the previous trend continued (which can be seen in the chart above, where I extend the 2000-2007 trend line forward to 2017). All that lost output—not to mention the accompanying jobs, homes, communities, and so on—represents one of the lingering effects of the Second Great Depression.

HS  college

And we can’t forget that young workers face elevated rates of underemployment—11.9 percent for young college graduates and much higher, 30.9 percent, for young high-school graduates. As the Economic Policy Institute observes,

This suggests that young graduates face less desirable employment options than they used to in response to the recent labor market weakness for young workers.

income  wealth

Finally, the previous trend of growing inequality—in terms of both income and wealth—has continued during the Second Great Depression. And there are no indications from the economy or economic policy that suggest that trend will be reversed anytime soon.

So, here we are at the end of the Second Great Depression—no longer down and with the normal rules back in place—and yet the effects from the longest and most severe downturn since the 1930s will be felt for generations to come.


*As if often the case, readers’ comments on newspaper articles tell a different story from the articles themselves. Here are two, on the New York Times article about the latest employment data:

John Schmidt—

Any discussion about “full employment”, when there are so many people who’ve essentially given up looking for work or who’re working in low-skill or unskilled labor positions, seems like the fiscal equivalent of rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. Based on data from the Fed and the World Bank, GDP per capita has doubled since 1993, while median household income has risen ~10%. Most of the newly-generated wealth and gains from productivity increases are being funneled upward, such that the average worker very rarely sees any sort of pay increase. Are we expected to believe that this will change now that we’ve [arguably] passed some arbitrary threshold? Why should we pat ourselves on the back for reaching “full employment”? Shouldn’t we be seeking *fulfilling* employment for everyone, instead, at least inasmuch as that’s possible? Shouldn’t we care that the relentless drive for profit at the expense of everything else is creating a toxic environment where the only way to ensure a raise is to hop from job to job, eroding any sense of two-way loyalty between companies and their employees?

I’m not sure what the solution is, but I know enough to see there’s a problem. Inequality of this sort is not sustainable, and it’s not going to magically disappear without some serious policy changes.

David Dennis—

There is a critical parameter missing from full employment data. very critical. Here in Pontiac, Michigan before the collapse of American manufacturing, full employment meant 10, 000 jobs working at GM factories and Pontiac Motors making above the mean wages with excellent health insurance as well as retirement pensions. You can not compare full employment at McDonalds and Walmart with the jobs that preceded them. The full employment measure doesn’t mean much if it isn’t correlated with a index that compares that employment with a standard of living as it relates to a set basket of goods, services, and benefits.


In a recently leaked audio file (from a private fundraiser in February), Hillary Clinton referred to them as “children of the Great Recession. . .living in their parents’ basement,” who “feel they got their education and the jobs that are available to them are not at all what they envisioned for themselves. And they don’t see much of a future.”*

Well, as it turns out, the children of the Great Recession, especially those who completed college in recent years, were right: the jobs that have been available to them have not been at all what they envisioned for themselves.


According to new research by Jaison R. Abel and Richard Deitz, unemployment among all workers, including college graduates, rose sharply during the Great Recession and continued to climb in the early stages of the recovery to levels not seen in decades.** It also increased dramatically for recent college graduates (whom the authors define as those with at least a bachelor’s degree who are 22 to 27 years old), doubling from about 3.5 percent before the recession to a peak of more than 7 percent in 2011. And even while unemployment among recent college graduates began to fall in late 2011, and to decline thereafter, it fell less steeply than for both college graduates as a whole and for all workers.


But high rates of unemployment only reveal part of the plight of recent college graduates during the second Great Depression. Many of them also found themselves underemployed, that is, working in jobs that did not require a college degree. Not all of them were working as baristas, of course, but their underemployment rate has consistently held well above the rate for all college graduates (which, historically, has hovered at around one-third)—climbing well into 2014, rising to more than 46 percent, a level not seen since the early 1990s. As Abel and Deitz explain,

This divergence between falling unemployment and rising underemployment among recent college graduates between mid-2011 and mid-2014 suggests that more graduates were finding jobs during this time, just not necessarily good ones.


The fact is, no matter how hard they tried, recent college graduates have had a difficult time finding jobs that met their degrees. That’s because, beginning in 2011, the demand for college jobs has fallen further and further behind postings for non-college jobs. According to the authors,

The steady growth of non-college jobs, coupled with the relatively soft demand for college graduates during this three-year period, appears to have forced many recent college graduates to take jobs not commensurate with their education. With the demand for college graduates rising again beginning in mid-2014, underemployment also started to come down. However, even with this modest improvement, 44.6 percent of college graduates—nearly one in two—found themselves underemployed in the early stages of their careers following the Great Recession.

What’s interesting is that recent college graduates, who were disappointed by the fewer and worse jobs they offered, for which they and their families had accumulated large amounts of student debt, did not choose the safe, mainstream option. They opted for a much-derided “idealism” and supported Sanders in much higher numbers than his self-identified “center-left/center-right” opponent.

For the last few decades, the value of a college degree has been economic and social dogma in the United States. Recent college graduates, who were forced to confront that dogma, were perhaps more prepared then to challenge other dogmas, including the political options presented by the American establishment.


*From Clinton’s perspective, underemployed Millennials’ support for Bernie Sanders betrayed “a deep desire to believe that we can have free college, free healthcare, that what we’ve done hasn’t gone far enough, and that we just need to, you know, go as far as, you know, Scandinavia, whatever that means, and half the people don’t know what that means, but it’s something that they deeply feel.”

**The charts from the Abel and Deitz research paper are updated on the Federal Reserve Bank of New York web site.


Over the course of the next month, millions of high-school and college students will be graduating. And, to judge by the circumstances of other young workers these days, the world that awaits them is pretty dismal.

It’s not their fault. They may be gifted and full of energy but the economic stars are aligned against them. Capitalism is failing them.


Consider high-school graduates. According to the Economic Policy Institute, the official unemployment rate is 17.9 percent (compared to an overall rate of 5 percent)—and the underemployment rate (which combines official unemployment with workers who would like a full-time job but can only find part-time work and those who are so discouraged they’ve given up even looking for work) is an extraordinary 33.7 percent.


Even college graduates, whose official unemployment rate is much lower (at 5.6 percent), face a very high underemployment rate (of 12.6 percent). That’s 1 in 8. And that doesn’t even take into consideration college graduates who are forced to have the freedom to take  jobs that don’t even require a college degree (e.g., the young college graduate working as a data-entry clerk).


And there’s the issue of wages if and when they find a job. The real hourly wages for high-school graduates—both young and overall—are no higher today (at $10.66 and $17.11, respectively) than they were at the beginning of 2000 (when they earned $10.86 and $17.01).


Again, college graduates are better off than workers with a high-school degree. But their wages, too, have been stagnant for the past decade and a half. Young college graduates today can expect to earn, on average, about $18.53 an hour today compared to $18.39 in early 2000; while all workers with a bachelor’s degree receive $31.40 an hour today, which is only slightly higher than in 2000 (when it was $29.39).

The usual argument one hears is that young people should be encouraged to go to college, after which they’ll face lower unemployment and receive higher wages.

That’s fine. I’m all in favor of increasing the chances and lowering the barriers for young people to study in the nation’s colleges and universities. But for young people, no matter how much education they’ve managed to obtain, current economic arrangements are failing them.

The members of the Class of 2016, no matter how gifted, have every right to be worried about what’s next.


U.S. workers’ wages are going nowhere fast.

According to the latest report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average hourly pay of production and nonsupervisory employees on private nonfarm payrolls was $20.80 in February was exactly what it was in January, just eight cents more than what it was in December 2014 and only 32 cents (or 1.6 percent) higher than it was a year ago.

In other words, nominal wages are just barely keeping up with the rate of inflation. As a result, even though productivity and corporate profits are up, the workers who are producing more and creating those profits are pretty much in the same position as they were at the start of the current recovery.

Here’s the explanation offered by Matt O’Brien:

It’s just the unemployment, stupid. Or maybe the underemployment. Between people who can’t find the full-time jobs they want, people who haven’t been able to find any jobs after looking for at least six months, and people who think things are so hopeless that they’ve given up looking for now, there are a lot more people than normal stuck on the margins of the labor force. And these “shadow unemployed,” according to the Fed, exert just as much downward pressure on wages as the regular unemployed. Put it all together, and wages haven’t recovered because the economy hasn’t fully recovered.

That’s pretty much the same conclusion I arrived at back in January:

The fact is, during the downturn, employers respond to slack demand not by lowering nominal wages (hence the “downward rigidities” mainstream economists so deplore), but by firing workers, replacing full-time workers with part-time workers, and increasing productivity (which mainstream economists can only celebrate). The result is a growth in the Industrial Reserve Army (as we can see in the dramatic growth in, and the still-elevated level of, the so-called U6 unemployment rate).

That pool of unemployed and underemployed workers (plus the availability of workers abroad, in China and elsewhere, together with the low level of unionization and the introduction of new, labor-displacing technologies) serves to regulate the level of wages: keeping nominal wages from rising even as economic growth picks up. In other words, employers don’t need to increase wages, either to keep their existing workers or to hire new ones. There are so many members of the Reserve Army of Unemployed and Underemployed workers willing to take whatever jobs are available that employers simply don’t need to increase wages.