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America's Disappearing Workforce
Where did America’s workers go? The future of the American economy may hinge on the answer.
The US economy added 165,000 new jobs in April and the unemployment rate fell to 7.5%. But labor force participation remained low. In fact, the labor force participation rate fell three points since the end of 2008. In April, just 63.6% of Americans 16 and over were working or looking for work. Although the unemployment rate fell steadily over the last three years, people who have given up looking for work aren’t counted among the unemployed. The fact is that a smaller percentage of Americans are working now than at any time since the 1970s.
Labor force participation rose in America—and in other advanced economies—more or less steadily from the end of the 1960s to the early 2000s as more and more women began to work. The percent of men in the workforce dropped over the same period, but not as quickly as percent of women in the workforce rose. That net increase in labor force participation is one of the major reasons the US economy grew so much over that period, since more workers means more production. But in the early 2000s the participation rate of women leveled off around 60%, and total participation began to go back down.
In other words, the influx of new workers that helped make America rich in the last century has begun to reverse. There were always limits to how much the labor force could grow. You can’t have more than 100% of the population working, after all. And in general labor force participation tends to be lower in rich countries, where more people can afford not to work if they choose. But the drop in labor force participation in America is part of a troubling long-term trend, which has been only been amplified by recent economic problems.
Part of the explanation for the drop in labor force participation is demographic. Baby Boomers began to reach retirement age right around the start of the recession. The recession probably led many of Americans to retire earlier than they planned—why look for a new job when you were planning to retire in a few years?—but the truth is that many of them were planning to leave the workforce soon anyway. For many Americans, it wasn’t that they couldn’t find work, but they were ready not to work anymore.
Labor force participation has also dropped among Americans in their prime working years. It declined most sharply during the recession. But for reasons that are unclear it has been falling steadily since the end of the 1990s. The drop in labor force participation among Americans 25-54 means there are roughly 3 million fewer workers today than there would be if it had stayed at peak levels.
The problem is that fewer workers means a smaller economy. It means—roughly speaking—fewer people producing goods and services for the population as a whole. Some Americans of prime working age are likely to return to work if the economy improves and better, higher-paying jobs become available. But with Americans living longer and birth rates staying low, the workers lost to retirement probably aren’t coming back. As Americans age, demands on the social security and health care systems will increase while the tax base shrinks. To avoid deficits, the country will probably have either to raise taxes on those are working or cut benefits for those who have retired or can’t find work.
America might still be able to maintain its historical rate of growth. But it will be hard. A 2011 McKinsey Global Institute report estimated that productivity would have to increase 34%—to a level we haven’t since the 1960s—just to compensate for the aging of the population. Barring some dramatic industrial breakthrough it’s not clear where that much new productivity could come from. In other words, the recession may be over, but that doesn’t mean the boom times are coming back.
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Construction of the $500 billion dollar tech city-state of the future is moving ahead.
- The futuristic megacity Neom is being built in Saudi Arabia.
- The city will be fully automated, leading in health, education and quality of life.
- It will feature an artificial moon, cloud seeding, robotic gladiators and flying taxis.
The Red Sea area where Neom will be built:
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Are we genetically inclined for superstition or just fearful of the truth?
- From secret societies to faked moon landings, one thing that humanity seems to have an endless supply of is conspiracy theories. In this compilation, physicist Michio Kaku, science communicator Bill Nye, psychologist Sarah Rose Cavanagh, skeptic Michael Shermer, and actor and playwright John Cameron Mitchell consider the nature of truth and why some groups believe the things they do.
- "I think there's a gene for superstition, a gene for hearsay, a gene for magic, a gene for magical thinking," argues Kaku. The theoretical physicist says that science goes against "natural thinking," and that the superstition gene persists because, one out of ten times, it actually worked and saved us.
- Other theories shared include the idea of cognitive dissonance, the dangerous power of fear to inhibit critical thinking, and Hollywood's romanticization of conspiracies. Because conspiracy theories are so diverse and multifaceted, combating them has not been an easy task for science.
Coronavirus layoffs are a glimpse into our automated future. We need to build better education opportunities now so Americans can find work in the economy of tomorrow.
- Outplacement is an underperforming $5 billion dollar industry. A new non-profit coalition by SkillUp intends to disrupt it.
- More and more Americans will be laid off in years to come due to automation. Those people need to reorient their career paths and reskill in a way that protects their long-term livelihood.
- SkillUp brings together technology and service providers, education and training providers, hiring employers, worker outreach, and philanthropies to help people land in-demand jobs in high-growth industries.
Source: McKinsey Global Institute analysis [PDF]<p>Work in understanding the skills at the heart of the new digital economy is leading to novel assessments that allow individuals to prove mastery to faithfully represent their abilities—but also to give weight and stackability to the emerging ecosystem of micro-credentials that make education more seamless across time and education providers. And we are seeing the beginnings of a renewal in the liberal arts, focused on building human skills in affordable ways that are accessible to many more individuals and far more effective.</p><p>Amidst these dark times, there is much opportunity to refresh the nation's education and training solutions to support the success of individuals and society writ large.</p>