The job market stands out as a bright spot in an otherwise lackluster U.S. economy. Yet it still offers Americans — particularly white, middle-aged men — ample reason for dissatisfaction as they prepare to elect their next president.
The Labor Department reported that nonfarm payrolls grew by an estimated 156,000 jobs in September, bringing the three-month average to 192,000 — plenty to compensate for natural growth in the labor force. The unemployment rate rose a bit to 5 percent, but for an encouraging reason: More people were actively looking for work rather than sitting on the sidelines — a prerequisite for being counted as unemployed.
The positive headline numbers, though, offer little solace to the millions of Americans who remain in the margins. Consider all the people in their prime working years who don’t have jobs — a group that includes those who aren’t counted as unemployed, because they haven’t looked for work in the past four weeks. As of September, the employment-to-population ratio among 25- to 54-year-olds stood at 78 percent, about 2.6 million jobs short of its average over the 10 years through 2007.
White males are having the hardest time recovering. On average in the three months through September, their employment-to-population ratio stood at a not-seasonally-adjusted 87 percent, about 1.3 million jobs below the pre-recession level. That’s about as bad as in March, and remains the biggest shortfall of any racial or gender group (though others were starting from a much worse baseline). Here’s a comparison:
Also, the jobs being created tend to be of lower quality. Part-time employment remains elevated, and well-paying positions are hard to come by. In the year through September, the lowest-paid third of professions accounted for about 40 percent of the 2.3 million net new jobs created. The middle third has only now come close to recouping its losses from the recession.
Much of the malaise probably could have been avoided. With more measures aimed at stimulating demand — such as spending on infrastructure — the country’s elected leaders could have put the economy in a much better position. The failure to act helps explain why so many people are unhappy with the political establishment, and why Donald Trump has managed to ride popular discontent all the way to the final stretch of the presidential race.
Mark Whitehouse writes editorials on global economics and finance for Bloomberg View.