Who Are the 6 Million?

One of the unanswered mysteries about the economy today isn't just where the jobs are, but where the drop-outs are. Those "drop-outs" are the 6 million would-be workers who are not counted in the labor force because they've stopped actively seeking more work, even if they're very much hoping for more work.

If they counted toward unemployment, the official rate would be 11 percent rather than 8.6 percent. As the economy picks up, and these people re-join the job hunt, the unemployment rate will go up before it goes down.

Who are the 6 million? First they're young. Since 2000, "the participation rate for people ages 16 to 24 has fallen from 66 percent to about 55 percent," the Cleveland Fed reported this year. Among those young people, they're mostly women. The share of women in the labor force under 25 has reached its lowest point in 30 years. More than 400,000 young women have dropped out entirely in the last two and a half years, Catherine Rampell writes today in the New York Times.

What are these young women doing, if they're not simply going home to look after their families or bide time while the economy picks up? The good news is that thousands of them are going to school, Rampell finds, where they'll learn skills that should put them at an advantage in two or four years. The bad news is that thousands of them want to be working part-time while they take classes, but they can't, making it harder for them to pay back their student loans.

Here are two telling charts from the NYT story. On the left, you see the big decline among male employment (the "mancession") as construction jobs disappeared, and an uptick in the last few months that also predominantly went toward guys. On the right, you see school enrollment steady rising and women's labor force participation steadily falling.

Screen Shot 2011-12-29 at 12.36.20 PM.png

It's often said that recessions don't create new trends, but accelerate old trends. It sure looks that way in the chart to the right. After reaching a peak in 1999, women's participation rate had already declined by about 7 percentage points before the recession started in 2007. It has continued to fall every subsequent year. Similarly, rising enrollment among women isn't a new story for the recession so much as an extension of a 40-year-old story that has been one of the economic highlights of the second half of the 20th century. Women are taking advantage of the recession by spending these years acquiring skills that could pay off in normal times. Men aren't. Why on earth not?
 

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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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