Back to Normal?

Jobs in December, and More

By Frank Stricker | January 2023 | Online-only

There wasn’t much change in some key indicators in December. The BLS (Bureau of Labor Statistics) unemployment rate stayed at 3.7% and has lingered in a narrow range for two years. As the Full Count shows (see box), a more comprehensive estimate of the truly unemployed increased by 600,000 persons and rose to 9.4%. In the official count, African American unemployment fell by 6% and the Hispanic rate increased by .4%. Black teen unemployment jumped from 12.2 to 18 %. Also, there were more people who said they wanted jobs but had not actively searched for them.

The Full Count

December 2023

  • Officially unemployed: 6.3 million (3.7%)
  • Hidden unemployment: 9.9 million*
  • Total: 16.2 million (9.0% of the labor force)

    • [There are 1.8 job-wanters for each available job.]

      Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

      Find the NJFAN's full analysis of the latest unemployment data here.

Meanwhile, the total number of non-farm employees rose by 216,000. Some commentators thought that was really good news, but the totals for October and November were revised downward as more employer information came to the BLS. Overall, the government’s job report was a matter of on the one hand this, but on the other hand that.

Taking a longer view of things, we added 2.7 million non-farm employees in 2023. That is down from 2022 when we added 4.8 million, but in 2022 we were still clawing our way back from the Covid-induced elimination of 21,940,000 jobs in two months—March and April of 2020. We’ve recovered most of those jobs, but how far along would we be without the pandemic or any significant recession? In the four-year period of mostly prosperous times from January 2014 through December 2017, we added almost ten million jobs (9,969,000). In the period from January 2020 through December 2023, we added just over five million jobs (5,134,000). Do we need to ramp up good-job creation? Yes, because we still have not gotten over the damage that the Covid-19 recession did to the economy. And yes, because even without Covid-19, real unemployment is always much higher than the official rate.

Wages

There was bad news on the wage front. Real wages—measuring purchasing power after inflation—grew just 1% over the last year for rank-and-file workers. That is pathetic. Inflation rates have come down (3.2%) but what the employer pays you has not gone up enough.

Is the Great Resignation Over? How About That Utopian Escape from Old-Style Jobs?

Are workers afraid to quit their jobs? “Nobody dares to quit their job.” That was half the title of a recent article about the end of the Great Resignation. The title and much of the article were fanciful. The argument included the notion that it was common during the early pandemic for people to quit their office jobs and plan a new life in the country growing vegetables. Or something like that. (Miquel Echarri, “The Great Resignation Failed: Today, Nobody Dares to Quit Their Job,” El Pais, December 25, 2023.)

I liked the Great Resignation label even if it was a wild exaggeration. Worker quit rates did jump by about a million a month, in part because of the surge in job availability as we recovered from the pandemic economy, but also because income-supports for the unemployed became richer. Of course, for several months, layoffs far exceeded quits. But after the initial elimination of 22,000,000 jobs in March and April of 2020 and a recovery took hold, layoffs fell back, and job openings increased to a record high of 12 million in March of 2022. Employers could not find enough workers, and yes, worker quits were high. Job openings have since fallen to around 8 million, a significant decline, but they aren’t unusually low. Many of us want more job vacancies, which gives more opportunity and power to workers. But we should not exaggerate the decline to claim that everything is getting worse. Job vacancies in the last 6 months have been higher than in any 6-month period from December 2000 through December 2020. (The numbers in this section come from employers’ reports and are sometimes called "payroll numbers." They do not include the farm sector, and they do not include the self-employed or independent contractors.)

As to resignations—quits as the BLS calls them—the number of quitters was the highest on record. In March and April of 2022 when 4,452,000 and 4,497,000 people quit their jobs. Last month 3,471,000 quit their jobs. That is a million less but not abnormally low. Are workers more desperate to hold on to their jobs? Perhaps a little more than two years ago. But note that in the first 11 months of 2023 there were a total of 41,361,000 quits in the U.S. Seems like a lot. Reasons for quitting a job are many including seeking or finding a better position. In general, workers don’t seem particularly timid about quitting their jobs and that’s good. And the story of a Great Resignation which would lead to a new and better world of work was always simplistic and na├»ve about real economic structures and constraints.

is a board member of the National Jobs for All Network. He is emeritus professor of history and labor studies, California State University, Dominguez Hills.


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