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Thoughts from the Frontline: A Lost Generation

Thoughts from the Frontline: A Lost Generation


It is pretty well established that a tax increase, especially an income tax increase, will have an immediate negative effect on the economy, with a multiplier of between 1 and 3 depending upon whose research you accept. As far as I am aware, no peer-reviewed study exists that concludes there will be no negative effects. The US economy is soft; employment growth is weak – and yet we are about to see a significant middle-class tax increase, albeit a stealth one, passed by the current administration. I will acknowledge that dealing a blow to the economy was not the actual plan, but that is what is happening in the real world where you and I live. This week we will briefly look at why weak consumer spending is going to become an even greater problem in the coming years, and we will continue to look at some disturbing trends in employment.

Last week, I noted at the beginning of the letter that an unintended consequence of Obamacare is a rather dramatic rise in the number of temporary versus full-time jobs. This trend results from employers having to pay for the health insurance of employees who work more than 29 hours a week.

I quoted Mort Zuckerman, who wrote in the Wall Street Journal:

The jobless nature of the recovery is particularly unsettling. In June, the government's Household Survey reported that since the start of the year, the number of people with jobs increased by 753,000 – but there are jobs and then there are "jobs." No fewer than 557,000 of these positions were only part-time. The June survey reported that in June full-time jobs declined by 240,000, while part-time jobs soared 360,000 and have now reached an all-time high of 28,059,000 – three million more part-time positions than when the recession began at the end of 2007.

That's just for starters. The survey includes part-time workers who want full-time work but can't get it, as well as those who want to work but have stopped looking. That puts the real unemployment rate for June at 14.3%, up from 13.8% in May.

As it turns out, the unintended consequences of Obamacare are not the only problem. Charles Gave wrote a withering indictment of quantitative easing this week (which we will look at in a few pages) and included the following chart, which caught my eye. Note that the relative increase in part-time jobs began prior to Obama's even assuming office. The redefinition of part-time as less than 29 hours a week and the new costs associated with full-time employment due to Obamacare simply accelerated a trend already set into motion.

An Ugly Secular Trend in Part-Time Work

Look closely at this graph. It turns out the trend toward part-time employment started in the recession of the early 2000s, paused only briefly, and then really took off in the recent Great Recession. This is clearly a secular trend that was in place well before 2008.

This development is very troubling, especially because it primarily affects young people and those with fewer skills. As I documented in letters last year, workers 55 and older are actually taking "market share" from younger workers. I went back tonight to see if that trend is still in place. The first graph below (the next few graphs are from the St. Louis Fed's FRED database) is one we are familiar with: the actual employment level over the last ten years. We are still two million jobs down since the onset of the last recession, some six years later. The only reason the unemployment rate has fallen at all is that several million people have simply left the labor force for one reason or another.

The next graph is the number of employed 25-54-year-olds. What you will notice is that the above graph shows about 7 million new jobs since the very bottom of the employment cycle, yet employment in the 25-54 age cohort has barely risen. Who got all the jobs?

That mystery is solved courtesy of the next chart, which shows the number of employed in the 55+ age group. Even acknowledging that there is a growing Boomer population does not account for the rather spectacular increase in employment in the 55+ age group. Can you find the recession in this chart? If the St. Louis Fed hadn't shaded the recession in gray, you certainly couldn't find it in the data. Not only did Boomers see a rise in employment, they took jobs from younger groups. If you dig down deeper, you find that the younger you are, the higher the unemployment level of your age-mates. I will spare you that exercise, as this is already depressing enough, unless you are 55+.

Note that I am not arguing that those of us over 55 should be put out to pasture. Many can't afford to quit working (especially when their kids are living with them!). I am just reporting on the facts. The only way to solve this is to grow our way out of it, yet whatever we are doing is not working.


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