A Spectacular, Colorful Chart of Who Works (and Who Doesn't Work) in America Today

Who are the 37 percent?

The share of American adults who are either working or actively looking for work -- i.e.: the labor force participation rate -- fell to its lowest point since 1979, according to today's jobs report.

If 37 percent of American adults aren't in the labor force, what are they doing?

Bloomberg Businessweek has a beautiful graphical explanation. Click it.

0405_unemployment_v4.jpg

The reason the labor force's share of the country is shrinking has to do with both economics and demographics. We're becoming an older country, and should expect more Americans in their 60s to retire in the next decade. College matriculation rates also rose through the recession as the opportunity cost of going to school fell because the large Millennial cohort saw there were so few jobs for young people. Meanwhile the number of people who want to work but just don't think there are jobs for them have grown significantly and disability rolls have also increased fast enough that some people suspect that discouraged workers are claiming disability insurance to make money.

The upshot is that the falling labor force is a bad thing, absolutely -- more workers means more stuff, more wealth, less government spending on the indigent, and so forth -- but it's also not something we can totally control. We can liberalize immigration to add more working people and resist budget cuts to keep deficit spending high while the private sector is recovering. But much of the decline in labor force participation is that one thing that not even the most ambitious policy wonk could ever imagine reversing. That thing is time. Older countries work less.
Presented by

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

Why Is Google Making Human Skin?

Hidden away on Google’s campus, doctors at a world-class life sciences lab are trying to change the way people think about their health.

Join the Discussion

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

Please note that The Atlantic's account system is separate from our commenting system. To log in or register with The Atlantic, use the Sign In button at the top of every page.

blog comments powered by Disqus

Videos

Why Is Google Making Skin?

Hidden away on Google’s campus, doctors are changing the way people think about health.

Video

How to Build a Tornado

A Canadian inventor believes his tornado machine could solve the world's energy crisis.

Video

A New York City Minute, Frozen in Time

This short film takes you on a whirling tour of the Big Apple

Video

What Happened to the Milky Way?

Light pollution has taken away our ability to see the stars. Can we save the night sky?

Video

The Pentagon's $1.5 Trillion Mistake

The F-35 fighter jet was supposed to do everything. Instead, it can barely do anything.

More in Business

Just In