Additional Slack in the Economy:
The Poor Recovery in Labor Force Participation During This Business Cycle

Public Policy Brief No. 05-2
by Katharine Bradbury

This public policy brief examines labor force participation rates in this recession and recovery and compares them with the cyclical patterns in earlier business cycles. Measured relative to the business cycle peak in March 2001, labor force participation rates almost four years later have not recovered as much as usual, and the discrepancies are large.

Among age-by-sex groups, the participation shortfall is especially pronounced at young and prime ages: Only for men and women age 55 and older has participation risen more than is usual four years after the business cycle peak.

The brief examines explanations and different recovery scenarios for various groups-older workers, women, teens. Depending on the scenario, the current labor force shortfall ranges from 1.6 million to 5.1 million men and women. With 7.9 million people currently unemployed, the addition of these hypothetical participants would raise the unemployment rate by 1 to 3-plus percentage points. Current low rates of labor market participation thus potentially represent considerable slack in the U.S. labor market.

This brief is based on materials presented in briefings to the President and Academic Advisory Council of the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston in March and April 2005.

Full-text brief pdf