We're on Track for Full Employment By ... 2030? 2040?

To give you a sense of how deep our employment hole is, consider one statistic: Even if we doubled the rate of December's job growth, we would still only achieve full employment by the mid-2020s.

This graph from the Hamilton Project has been circulating the Web, and I'm passing it along. It shows that if the economy adds 320,000 jobs per month (equal to the best year in the 1990s), we'll achieve full employment by 2015. If we add 200,000 jobs per month (twice December's total), full employment will come around 2023.

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What should I take away from this graph? I asked Hamilton Project director Michael Greenstone. He responded: "What it's trying to say is that the recession will continue to be a major problem for working families not for a few years, but for a long time. We can't lose sight of that."

Greenstone, who has also written on income inequality and the middle class wage gap, said the country faces a two-step challenge. The first challenge is getting Americans back to work, a strategy which I think should include both continued monetary and fiscal action with an eye to long-term budget reform. The second step is building the capacity for the middle class to break out of its 30-year slump and rediscover rising real wages.

How do we do that? "We absolutely have to do something about the levels of education in the country," he said. "The flattening out of the number of people getting college degrees in a global economy is not a recipe for success."

Despite months of positive economic data, this is still an economy where hundreds of thousands of workers are giving up looking for jobs every month. This has the effect of artificially reducing the unemployment rate because it hides more than a million working age Americans from the BLS's unemployment calculations. But make no mistake, most of those workers are coming back and their return will probably raise the unemployment rate before we see a steady fall.

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Derek Thompson is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he writes about economics, labor markets, and the entertainment business.

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