Last month, America’s headline unemployment rate hit a 50-year low of 3.5 percent, even as the labor force expanded by 117,000 people and the overall participation rate held steady. Meanwhile, the participation rate among prime-age men ticked up slightly, and the employment-to-population (EPOP) ratio among all prime-age adults reached its highest level since 2007.
That’s according to the latest jobs report, released on Friday morning.
Now for the bad news: Total nonfarm payroll employment grew by just 136,000, and average hourly earnings did not grow at all from month to month. (They actually dropped by 1 cent.) Year over year, wage growth declined from 3.2 percent in August to 2.9 percent in September.
“From late 2017 through late 2018, it looked like wage growth was picking up,” writes former Labor Department chief economist Heidi Shierholz. But not anymore. “Wage growth has slipped this year.”
Looking at specific sectors of the economy, there’s been a sharp slowdown in the growth of manufacturing jobs, and the retail trade has lost 197,000 jobs since hitting a peak at the beginning of 2017.
What to make of all this? As New York Times economics correspondent Neil Irwin puts it, the numbers “have something for everybody.” Optimists can seize on the unemployment rate and the prime-age EPOP ratio. Pessimists can point to sluggish wage growth and the weakness in manufacturing and retail. Trump supporters can celebrate record-high employment. Trump critics can lament the impact of his trade war.
Irwin offers a balanced perspective: “The slowing wage growth paired with low unemployment is a genuine conundrum. It should make the Federal Reserve even more skeptical of the theoretical relationships between jobs, wages and inflation that have traditionally driven its policy choices.
“In particular, the longer the United States carries on with sub-4 percent unemployment with no negative consequences, the stronger the case for testing just how low things can go.
“But the rest of these results are not particularly surprising, nor inconsistent with one another. Slower job growth is nothing to mourn if it takes place as the economy inches closer and closer to full employment. And that it is taking place with continued gains in the share of prime-age adults working means the job market is still going in the right direction, at least in terms of creating jobs.
“There may yet be a more significant slowdown or even a recession in the months ahead, but the good news is that it certainly isn’t here yet.”