8.2% Unemployment: An Exceedingly 'Meh' Jobs Report for March

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After three straight months of wicked job growth, March disappointed with 120,000 new workers. But the unemployment rate ticked down to 8.2%, the lowest rate since the first month of Obama's presidency.

The economic Twitter world, which lately has thrilled to the employment surveys released at 8:30 AM every first Friday of the month, spent this Good Friday morning tweeting out variations on a theme of "huh." The Washington Post's Neil Irwin's might just have won the morning with some basic meta-analysis: "Overall take on jobs report: Meh." Meh, indeed.

Here are four ways to think about Meh March.

Interp 1: Okun's Law strikes back. For the last few weeks, some economists have puzzled over how the economy could create 200,000+ jobs a month with only modest GDP growth. According to "Okun's Law," employment growth and GDP growth like to hold hands. You don't see one get too far ahead of the other. This jobs report brings the two in line. Perhaps the broadest, simplest interpretation of today is that the recovery is still real and still weak, just as we thought before this morning's report.

Interp 2: This report is wrong ... ish. These reports are subject to major revisions. In August 2011, as you might recall, we created zero jobs. At least, that was the breaking news on the first Friday of September. Two months later, it turned out that we created 85,000 jobs in August. That's some margin of error. Eighty-five thousand jobs is exactly the difference between today's 120,000 figure and consensus expectations of a strong 200k month. These numbers are written in editable pixels, not in stone.

Interp 3: Things are quietly getting worse. After three straight positive months of job creation, worker participation rate fell surprisingly. The employment-population rate fell again, too. In other words, even though we are in a recovery, a shrinking percentage of our country is looking for work or employed. We want a recovery where the unemployment rate falls thanks to job creation, not labor force dissipation.

Interp 4: Things are quietly getting better. Take the long view. Average monthly job creation in the last quarter is greater than 200,000. Average monthly job creation in the last six months is nearly 190,000. That's a recovery, people. It's still the best 12 months of job growth in the last five years. The most important sectoral drag on employment, which has been government losses, is slowing sharply, and manufacturing is still expanding more than 30,000 jobs a month.


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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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