What the 'End of Retail' Means for Young Workers


Karl Smith - Assistant Professor of Public Economics at UNC-CH & Blogger at Modeled Behavior 

Quickly tying together a bunch of threads: My general take is that neither GDP nor the Employment-Population Ratio is a stat we should care about for its own sake. By that same token, in-and-of-itself, I don't consider declines in unemployment from people leaving the workforce to better or worse than declines from people becoming unemployed.

There are lots of reasons, but fundamentally because these are a function of choices people make about their lives.

When lots of people chose to work, GDP will increase, the population-employment ratio will rise, and declines in unemployment will be dominated by folks becoming employed. When lots of people choose to retire, stay in school longer or stay home to raise a family the trends will reverse.

However, its not immediately clear that working is a better life choice than the other three options. Indeed, we generally consider the other three to be luxuries afforded by a wealthy society.

What matters is whether or not the labor market is functioning smoothly. If someone chooses to look for employment will they have hard time. If the answer to this question is no, and yet still few people look, then we have to conclude that from a macro-perspective things are going fine.

There may be micro level problems with inadequate skills, or oppressive gender roles or any other host of things. However, the macro-economy is doing its job.

With that in mind, I do want to point out a trend that could explain structural weakness in the economy from the production side.

Here is a look at employment in what we might think of as shopping center retail: clothing stores, department stores, general merchandise, books, music, etc compared to real retail sales

FRED Graph

Despite the seeming acceleration in sales, this part of employment is rolling over.

Now look at the Employment Population Ratio and Unemployment rates for workers 16-19. Here I have re-normed unemployment so that I am graphing (60 = the unemployment rate) to match the early 90s. The implication is that if unemployment were zero then 60% of teenagers would be employed.

FRED Graph

We see a large and growing gap between unemployment and the employment-population ratio. There are numerous micro explanations here.

One possibility, however, is that the relatively weak growth in shopping center employment relative to retail sales since 2000 and especially recently is driving down overall teen employment levels.

However, because teenagers are especially suited to shopping center employment they are dropping out of the labor force in response. That is, the End of Retail is causing a permanent shift in teenage employment because there are no substitutes for retail jobs.

This is a true structural downturn because it means that the production function is changing such that the productivity of teenage labor cannot meet the reservation wage.

When that happens a factor of production simply goes out of use. It also implies that for a time the economic gains from productivity enhancements will be muted. E-commerce means more efficient shopping but because we are not repurposing teenage labor but losing it completely, the measured gains are less than they otherwise would be.

On the other hand the non-measured gains to increased free time and -- one can dream -- increased school work are larger than we would have expected.

Jump to comments
Presented by

Megan McArdle is a columnist at Bloomberg View and a former senior editor at The Atlantic. Her new book is The Up Side of Down.

Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

The Time JFK Called the Air Force to Complain About a 'Silly Bastard'

51 years ago, President John F. Kennedy made a very angry phone call.

Elsewhere on the web

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus


Adventures in Legal Weed

Colorado is now well into its first year as the first state to legalize recreational marijuana. How's it going? James Hamblin visits Aspen.


What Makes a Story Great?

The storytellers behind House of CardsandThis American Life reflect on the creative process.


Tracing Sriracha's Origin to Thailand

Ever wonder how the wildly popular hot sauce got its name? It all started in Si Racha.


Where Confiscated Wildlife Ends Up

A government facility outside of Denver houses more than a million products of the illegal wildlife trade, from tigers and bears to bald eagles.


Is Wine Healthy?

James Hamblin prepares to impress his date with knowledge about the health benefits of wine.


The World's Largest Balloon Festival

Nine days, more than 700 balloons, and a whole lot of hot air



More in Business

Just In