Our Employment Situation: What Is America Singing?

The employment picture is improving overall, but it remains fuzzy for young workers.

June 9, 2014

I Hear America Singing,” by Walt Whitman, is a poem that captures the essence of the American worker; from mechanics to masons to mothers, “Each singing what belongs to him or her and to none else…

“The shoemaker singing as he sits on his bench, the hatter singing as he stands.”

Whitman writes about the pride each worker feels for his craft, and “that all Americans from every walk of life contribute to making up the fabric of America,” as literary analysis at illustrates.

Each worker’s voice is heard; each voice is important in America’s song.

As each worker contributes to keeping America’s economy humming, the economy in turn affects each worker regarding available jobs, earnings, and expenditures.

Our employment situation has many components that together unite in varied economic choruses—sometimes we sing joyful songs, sometimes tunes are sung in a minor key.

Research this week examines some different demographic “parts” in our employment chorus in exploration of how each affects the economy.

What is America singing? Do you hear the music?

‘I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear’

The seasonally adjusted civilian unemployment rate is at 6.3% as of April 1, 2014, according to FRED data at the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis. This is down from 7.5% in April, 2013.

A wide array of employment statistics based on the Current Population Survey is available at FRED’s site, and you will find similar information also at the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).  Here you will learn about characteristics of the employed and unemployed, and find options to search on specific demographic characteristics as you choose.

Our falling unemployment rate coincides with Gallup data as “U.S. Job Creation Index Hits New High.” This unprecedented height presents itself in Gallup’s “more than six-year trend, registering +27 in May.”

The previous high was +26 in January 2008, as the recession took hold. This index is based on the sentiments of U.S. workers as they observe and remark on staffing changes of their employers.

“Job creation is undoubtedly one of the key aspects of a strong economy, and U.S. workers now report a more positive hiring situation… The trend is consistent with the government’s latest four-week average of initial jobless claims, which is the lowest in more than six years.”

More good news is found as “Employment [is] up in 36 of 38 Large Metro Areas, April 2013 to April 2014,” notes BLS. “Among all of the nation’s metropolitan areas, nonfarm payroll employment increased from April 2013 to April 2014 in 302 metropolitan areas, decreased in 63 areas, and was unchanged in seven areas.”

The largest employee increase over the year was found in the Los Angeles-Long Beach-Santa Ana, Calif., area with an additional 118,200 employees—up 2.1%. The biggest decrease was found in the Detroit-Warren-Livonia, Mich., area, which lost 5,500 employees.

‘Each one singing his as it should be blithe and strong’

Research findings expand upon employment experiences for certain demographics, including women, new graduates, and older workers.

Women’s contributions to the labor force have greatly expanded since World War II, when less than one third of women participated, according to “Women in the Labor Force: A Databook.”  It was during 1999 that women were at their peak in our workforce, at 60%.

Women’s labor force participation remains relatively high as more women obtain college degrees. Women’s earnings, too, have increased over time: In 1970, women at work full-time earned 62% of their male counterparts’ earnings, but by 2012 they earned 81% of men’s wages.

However, note “After Decades of Decline, a Rise in Stay-At-Home Mothers,” says Pew Research. “The share of mothers who do not work outside the home rose to 29% in 2012, up from a modern-era low of 23% in 1999.”

A combination of factors is credited with this trend, including increased immigration and fewer women in the labor force. Plus, “the economic ups and downs of the past decade likely influenced mothers’ decisions… The share of mothers staying home with their children rose from 2000 to 2004, but the rise stopped in 2005 amid economic uncertainty” that heralded the Great Recession.

“Fully a third (34%) of stay-at-home mothers are living in poverty, compared with 12% of working mothers.”

Meanwhile, “The Weak Economy is Idling Too Many Young Graduates,” says the Economic Policy Institute (EPI). The U.S. labor market is down more than seven million jobs since the Great Recession. That’s especially problematic for workers under age 25, who suffered an unemployment rate of 14.5% in March 2014—more than twice the national average.

“Job prospects for young high school and college graduates remain dim,” EPI reports. Since 2012, college enrollment rates “have dropped substantially” as the younger cohort did not find “shelter in school.”

Rather, the slow economy has stalled them instead, and “This represents an enormous loss of opportunities… that will have lasting consequences.”

Today, almost one million younger workers are “missing” as this group—who is able to work—is neither employed nor seeking jobs. Were they included in the unemployment count, it would rise to 18.1%.

Finally, “Men, motivated by a desire to still feel useful, continue working after retirement age,” says Business Daily News. A study sited here suggests “companies retain their workers after retirement by keeping in mind both men and women come back for different reasons” including “generativity” as older employees take on mentorship roles.

Consider how our employment situation affects your members. What motivates them to enter or depart the workforce? What role does your local economy play? Can you target services accordingly?

You can help consumers hoping to sing “with open mouths their strong melodious sounds.”

LORA BRAY is an information research analyst for CUNA’s economics and statistics department.