Sorry, Conservatives: The Labor Force Participation Rate Doesn’t Mean What You Think It Means

We all know the old saying “when it rains, it pours.” Well, in conservative land, they like to try and turn that around; when it’s sunny, they all grab magnifying glasses and point them at America’s forearms in the hopes of making it as painful as possible. And that is sadly evidenced by one of their popular anti-Obama myths: the labor force participation rate, a statistic they think reflects just how awful President Obama is for our economy.

The labor force participation rate is pretty much exactly what it sounds like: it’s a statistic from the Bureau of Labor Statistics that reflects what percentage of Americans over the age of 16 are currently employed. And at first glance, that chart looks pretty grim. Below is a chart from 1986 through 2016, and in that thirty-year stretch, it really does look like President Obama has been bad for the American economy, doesn’t it?

Labor Force Participation Rate, 1986 through 2016

That chart shows that a smaller percentage of America’s workforce ages 16+ are working today. Surely, that must mean that the 4.7% unemployment rate touted by the Obama administration is total bull-crap, right? People have just given up on trying to find work altogether and are suckling on the government teat in record numbers… right?

Well, sorry to be the bearer of bad news, conservatives, but the labor force participation rate doesn’t actually show what you think it shows.

The labor force participation rate reflects every American between the ages of 16 and not-quite-dead. That includes high school kids and college kids. It includes stay-at-home parents. It includes retirees. It includes your 97-year old Great Aunt Elda, who prefaces every sentence with “back in my day” and usually ends every sentence with a racial epithet that makes you really, really uncomfortable.


When you spend, oh, three to five seconds thinking about those numbers, it suddenly becomes pretty obvious that despite conservative rhetoric, this statistic isn’t actually as terrifying as it looks at first glance. Right now, we’re witnessing a convergence of several economic events that are well outside the control of any mortal being; not even the President of the United States can stop them.

Baby boomers are retiring in record numbers. Meanwhile, thanks to modern medicine and contemporary living, Americans are living longer today than ever before. That means those retirees will outlive the retirees of previous generations considerably, and seeing as how they’re retired, they’re no longer a part of the work force… they’re contributing to the deflation of the labor force participation rate in massive ways, and for all of the right reasons. We don’t want your Great Aunt Elda working anyway, do we? Not with all the racist stuff she spouts off the cuff.

Meanwhile, far more young people are going to college today than they did thirty or forty years ago, and many of those students are focusing on their studies, meaning they aren’t working. This is making the labor force participation rate drop as well, but in reality, the reasons for that drop are all-around pretty good.

How Did The Labor Force Participation Rate Get So High To Begin With?

Now let’s ask another important question, one far more important than the ones conservatives were asking about these numbers: why the heck did the labor force participation rate get so high to begin with?

Earlier, we took a look at the labor force participation rates from 1986 through 2016. Now let’s go out a bit further, and look at the rates from 1956 to 2016. These numbers tell us something a little more shocking about the state of the US economy in the past 60 years.

Labor force participation rate, 1956 through 2016

With this chart, we see a slow incline in the labor force participation rate, as the baby boomers entered the workforce. But there’s a pretty sharp increase between 1974 and 1980. Where did that come from? Conservatives are always railing against President Jimmy Carter, using him as an example of the worst president other than Obama in living memory… why, then, did so many people join the workforce during his brief tenure?

In the 1970’s, wages began to stagnate, struggling to keep up with inflation rates. The old family paradigm from the 1950’s and 1960’s of a man working and a woman being a mother became less and less viable; more women started entering the workforce so families could make ends meet. That sharp increase in labor force participation in the 1970’s stemmed from large numbers of women joining the workforce, something society had generally frowned upon prior to that era.

And there you have it. The labor force participation rate increased because baby boomers were getting jobs, because women were proving they’re just as valuable in the workplace as men, and because more young Americans were enrolling in college. Those baby boomers are retiring, while college enrollment continues to generally trend upward; we have more women in the work force today, despite so many women retiring, so the decline hasn’t been as sharp, and the rate hasn’t decreased to its same lows in the 1950’s and 1960’s.

Conservatives love throwing around statistics to try and prove their points. The problem is, they never seem to take a few moments to try and comprehend those statistics. No, the labor force participation rate does not indicate that President Obama has been doing a bad job. No, it doesn’t indicate that our economy is weaker today than it was in the past. The funny part? This misunderstood statistic does more to reflect positively on the Obama economy than it does to belittle it.

Photo by marcn

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