The market tanked Wednesday on bad preliminary job news. And so, when Friday’s jobs report is released, the unemployment rate and the number of new jobs will come in for close scrutiny. Then again, they always attract the most attention. Even the Federal Reserve focuses on the unemployment rate, announcing on a number of occasions that a rate of 6.5% will indicate when it is time to start raising interest rates and winding down the Fed’s easy-money policies.
Yet the unemployment rate is not the best guide to the strength of the labor market, particularly during this recession and recovery. Instead, the Fed and the rest of us should be watching the employment rate. There are two reasons.
First, the better measure of a strong labor market is the proportion of the population that is working, not the proportion that isn’t. In 2006, 63.4% of the working-age population was employed. That percentage declined to a low of 58.2% in July 2011 and now stands at 58.6%. By this measure, the labor market’s health has barely changed over the past three years.
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