New Unemployment and Productivity Numbers are Bad News for Job Seekers

The latest surveys of employers and households both show continued deterioration in the U.S. job market. For the 22nd consecutive month the number of payroll jobs fell. In view of the turnaround in GDP statistics in the July-September quarter, the continuing decline in both manufacturing and service-sector employment is especially disheartening. The combination of rising output and shrinking payrolls means that employers are still scrambling to find ways to produce more output with less labor input. The latest productivity numbers, released yesterday by the Labor Department, confirm that U.S. output per hour is rising strongly. This is good news for companies’ costs and possibly for future wage gains, but it is bad news for job seekers.

If there is a silver lining in the latest jobs report it is that the pace of job market deterioration is much slower than it was earlier in the year. Payrolls are still shrinking but much more slowly than they were last winter. This sliver of good news cannot be very reassuring to the unemployed. The BLS report shows there were an additional 560,000 jobless workers in October compared with September. Their job prospects are bleak. The number of unemployed workers who have been jobless for 6 months or longer hit a new all-time high in October, reaching 5.6 million workers or 3.6 % of the labor force. The average duration of unemployment in October also hit a new record, 26.9 weeks. This is an increase of more than 10 weeks since the recession began. Compared with the strong job market at the end of the 1990s, the average duration of U.S. unemployment spells has approximately doubled.

The current recession has also seen the steepest decline in the employment-to-population ratio in the modern era. Since the peak of the last economic expansion in December 2007 the percentage of Americans who hold jobs has fallen 4.2 percentage points, dropping from 62.7% to 58.5% of the population 16 and over. The adult employment rate is now lower than it has been anytime in the past 26 years. Many people who hold jobs are also suffering. Almost 9.3 million workers, or 6.7% of those with jobs, are employed in part-time positions even though they would prefer to work in a full-time job. The latest employment and unemployment statistics confirm that, at least in the job market, this is the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression.