David Leonhardt, a New York Times economics writer, explains in his column that the official unemployment rate hides the much higher "real" rate of unemployment.
Thirteen percent of prime-age males in the U.S. are not working, a post-World War II high that acts as an anchor on hourly wages and compensation.
"...the average unemployment rate in this decade, just above 5 percent, has been lower than in any decade since the 1960s. Yet the percentage of prime-age men (those 25 to 54 years old) who are not working has been higher than in any decade since World War II. In January, almost 13 percent of prime-age men did not hold a job, up from 11 percent in 1998, 11 percent in 1988, 9 percent in 1978 and just 6 percent in 1968.
Even prime-age women, who flooded into the work force in the 1970s and 1980s, aren’t working at quite the same rate they were when this decade began. About 27 percent of them don’t hold a job today, up from 25 percent in early 2000.
There are only two possible explanations for this bizarre combination of a falling employment rate and a falling unemployment rate. The first is that there has been a big increase in the number of people not working purely by their own choice. You can think of them as the self-unemployed. They include retirees, as well as stay-at-home parents, people caring for aging parents and others doing unpaid work.
If growth in this group were the reason for the confusing statistics, we wouldn’t need to worry. It would be perfectly fair to say that unemployment was historically low.
The second possible explanation — a jump in the number of people who aren’t working, who aren’t actively looking but who would, in fact, like to find a good job — is less comforting. It also appears to be the more accurate explanation.
Various studies have shown that the new nonemployed are not mainly dot-com millionaires or stay-at-home dads. (Men who have dropped out of the labor force actually do less housework on average than working women, according to Harley Frazis and Jay Stewart of the Bureau of Labor Statistics.)
Instead, these nonemployed workers tend to be those who have been left behind by the economic changes of the last generation. Their jobs have been replaced by technology or have gone overseas, and they can no longer find work that pays as well. West Virginia, a mining state, is a great example. It may have a record-low unemployment rate, but it has also had an enormous rise in the number of out-of-work men.
These nonemployed remain a distinct minority of the population. But the growth in their numbers is one reason that overall wage growth has been so weak lately. With such a large pool of people who aren’t employed — but willing to work for the right price — those who do have jobs find themselves with less bargaining power. Since 2003, total compensation, including the value of health insurance and other benefits, has failed to keep pace with inflation for most workers, according to Jared Bernstein of the Economic Policy Institute.