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Are Fewer People Participating in the Workforce?

By Brian Withers and Toby Bordelon – Oct 4, 2021 at 7:00AM

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And is this part of the "new normal"?

Recent employment numbers indicate there are far fewer people in the workforce than there were in a decade ago. The pandemic, among other things, has permanently shifted the employment landscape, but does the data tell the whole story?

In this video from "The 5" on Motley Fool Live, recorded on Sept. 23, Fool.com contributors Brian Withers and Toby Bordelon share their thoughts on where workers are going and what the numbers might not tell us about the labor force.

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Brian Withers: Yeah, I'm glad you brought up the labor force participation rate because that's an important concept for folks to understand and I'll go back to the Fred website here again. This is a super interesting trend to me, this goes back to 1950. This is basically the percentage of working adults I think between 18 and I want to say 70 or something, 69, 70, that are able to work and how many of them are working. You look back in the '60s, the number was down in the high 50s and from '65 up through, I want to say just before the 2000 here at the beginning of 2000, it peaked at around 67%, and so a lot of this was actually women entering the workplace and participating in maybe those dual-income households that you talked about, Toby.

Then since 2000, there have been a number of things. It's just gradually ticked down again. It's not, you can say, well, 63%-67%, that's not a lot, but that's what 3% is around 10 million people, and let me just shore up on the coronavirus here. Get into 2010 to today, this dropped about 10 million people out of the workforce in just very short period of time. We're back up to where we were about 61.7% versus a 63%. So this is still a couple of million people, I want to say 5, 6 million people gap between where we were and where we are, and I think, Toby, you mentioned a couple of other things that the nature of jobs have changed, as well as there are job pockets of where people don't necessarily live. I know I've looked at some articles where the north Midwest of the country has way more jobs than they have people. The largest, more jobs than unemployment people. That ratio is the highest in the upper Midwest area.

Toby Bordelon: The other thing with that, Brian, you mentioned the Midwest, that has a lot of jobs. If you look at demographics, I think some of what you'll see is that those areas of the country that have maybe more jobs than others also tend to be more demographically favorable to maybe the two-income household that's shifting. You've got a bunch of these factors that might be piling on to each other and it's not clear to me because that chart you showed, we were at 63% almost maybe a short-term steady-state that we're going after the pandemic. It's not clear to me, we get back to 63% immediately. Maybe we're stuck at 61% for a couple of years as things shake out, I don't know. Are we even measuring right now given the increase in work from home and part-time and gig work to these?

Withers: Yeah, are they accurate?

Bordelon: Yeah, that's another thing you've got to consider.

Withers: There's a ton of new ways that you can be employed and not necessarily get income tax withdrawn from your paycheck.

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