The second chart paints a gloomy picture — the picture that Donald Trump may be referring to when he says the true unemployment rate is 40 percent or higher. A 59.8 percent employment-to-population ratio means that 40.2 percent of American civilians 16 and over don’t have jobs. That percentage includes high-school students, 100-year-olds and lots of other people who don’t want or need jobs, so the true unemployment rate clearly isn’t 40 percent. Still, in April 2000 the employment-to-population ratio peaked at 64.7 percent. Now it’s significantly lower. What’s going on?
The answer that I keep gravitating to is that despite the 4.9 percent unemployment rate, the job market is still pretty weak, and probably malfunctioning in some way. This isn’t the only possible answer. In 2014, for example, two economists at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York divided people responding to the Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey (from which the unemployment rate and the charts in this article are derived) into 280 cohorts defined by “birth, sex, race/ethnicity, and educational attainment.” They determined that most of the decline in the employment-to-population ratio since 2000 could be explained by the changing makeup of the population.
But demographics aren’t destiny.