“Well, you know, the participation rate is going to go down over time because all these boomers are retiring,” said Jon Hilsenrath on Fox Business’ “Mornings with Maria” Friday. Hilsenrath, a frequent guest, was referring to the labor participation rate, which measures the overall percentage of workers who are presently employed. It differs from the unemployment rate in that the latter only counts those actively looking for work.
The Participation Rate
Hilsenrath’s statement would have been rather uncontroversial if it weren’t for the previous, eight-year cacophony from conservatives on how falling unemployment numbers were misleading. After every jobs report during Obama’s presidency, Republicans would, without fail, point out falling participation rate numbers, concluding, “People aren’t going back to work; they’re just giving up looking for work.”
While there undoubtedly were some conservatives who acknowledged that some part of the participation rate decline represented people who were just retiring (perhaps even Hilsenrath himself), this writer never heard it mentioned on a conservative program once. Not a single time in eight years.
Perhaps aware of the context, Hilsenrath went on to say, “The fact that it’s held steady is a sign that people that aren’t aging, you know, older people, are coming back into the labor force and that’s a good sign. I’m watching the unemployment rate today. We talked about this earlier. If it goes below four percent, then that shows me an economy on fire.”
Not to pile on, but even the participation rate “holding steady” began during Obama’s presidency, the last dip below 63 percent coming in 2015, followed by a recovery to 63 percent in early 2016 that has held steady ever since.
The President Doesn’t Really Matter
This is not meant as an endorsement of Obama’s economic policies nor necessarily criticism of President Trump’s. Rather, it is an acknowledgment that long-term trends in these metrics haven’t really changed since 2010, other than a leveling off in the labor participation rate, and neither president has had much to do with them, regardless of what they or their supporters would like you to think.
Tom Mullen is the author of Where Do Conservatives and Liberals Come From? And What Ever Happened to Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness? Part One and A Return to Common Sense: Reawakening Liberty in the Inhabitants of America.