Across the country, there are more jobs available than there are workers looking for them, as the unemployment rate has dropped to a nearly two-decade low. Businesses are complaining of worker shortages, arguing they could do more and sell more and build more if they could just find the labor. Yet wages remain strikingly flat, with much of the raises that workers are making getting eaten up by inflation. Employees still somehow lack the power to cajole businesses into paying them more, nearly a decade into the recovery.
The central paradox of the Trump economy is that widespread concerns about labor shortages coexist with widespread complaints about low wages. But economists do not see it as much of a paradox—instead seeing it as a sign of dimming business dynamism and diminished worker power.
Whatever its causes, the change is striking. The last time that the unemployment rate was this low, during the late Clinton presidency, year-on-year wage growth was roughly 5 percent. It is now just above 3 percent. Moreover, wage growth has not picked up much for the past three years, even as the jobless rate has dropped down to historically low levels.
This may reflect the inherent limitations of the unemployment rate as an economic indicator. During and after the Great Recession, millions of Americans dropped out of the labor force, unable to find a good job or any job at all. They went to school. They retired. They became unpaid caretakers. If they had a disability, they applied for insurance coverage. The share of prime-age adults with a job dropped from 80 percent to 75 percent. Now, even with the unemployment rate in the low single digits, it has not recovered to where it was before this recession or the prior one. There is still slack in the labor market, with hundreds of thousands of workers sitting on the sidelines.