Sunday, 9 December 2018

In their prime

Our latest monetary policy targets agreement requires policy to "contribute to supporting maximum sustainable employment within the economy", and the Reserve Bank now spends a fair bit of each Monetary Policy Statement reporting on where we are relative to the maximum sustainable level, using a suite of different labour market indicators.

In the latest Statement, the Bank said that "employment is near its maximum sustainable level" (p22). It might be above it: "Evidence reported by employers suggests the labour market is currently tight, and that employment is above its maximum sustainable level" (p22). Or it might be below it: "some other indicators of the labour market suggest that employment may still be below its maximum sustainable level. One example is the job-finding rate" (p23). But overall we look to be there or thereabouts.

While the Bank deploys a whole battery of perspectives on the state of the labour market, one line of attack that doesn't appear is what is happening to what the Americans call the "prime age labour force", those aged 25 to 54. They're the bedrock of the labour force - they're typically out of education and not yet contemplating retirement - and the argument is that it's the state of the core  labour force that matters most for things like wages growth.

Overseas what's happening to the prime age labour force consequently gets quite a bit of air time: here, for example, is the Wall Street Journal's graph explaining the November US jobs report (from 'Did the Job Market Slow in November? Here’s How It Compares', if you've got access).


Interestingly, despite the long post-GFC expansion in the US, neither the participation rate nor the employment rate for prime age people have got back to where they were just before the GFC, and there is a mix of structural and cyclical trends going on: there looks to have been a gentle trend downwards in participation even before the GFC hit.

The corresponding numbers for New Zealand don't get much focus at all (they weren't mentioned, for example, in Stats' news release on our latest employment data), so in the spirit of inquiry I went and dug them out to see what they might be able to tell us (they're easily calculated from the data in Infoshare). Here are the headline unemployment results.


The unemployment rate for prime age people is, as you'd expect, markedly lower than for the labour force as a whole. And it's certainly signalling a tight market: the latest unemployment rate (2.0%) is getting close to its all-time low (1.5% in late 2007). You'd imagine that a fair chunk of this low rate is frictional unemployment, and that there's precious little cyclical unemployment left.

Here is the participation rate picture. It's harder to interpret: we're in uncharted territory, as the prime age participation rate has been hitting record highs. Can it keep on rising? Is there still a large reserve of people who could be tickled out into employment? Who knows, but you'd guess that the reservoir must be getting lower. We're down to only 14% of prime age people who are not in the labour force, and who are doing things like looking after young or elderly family.


The prime age participation rate is usefully splitabble into male and female participation rates, and here they are.


The overall rise to record levels of prime age participation is largely driven by a sharp and ongoing rise in female prime age participation, and like in the US there are surely both structural and cyclical things going on. That drop in the male rate over 1986-2000, for example, may well reflect the post-Rogernomics shrinking of traditionally male-dominated activities like meat processing. Changing social attitudes about (for example) who should stay at home and look after the kids will be in there, too. So it's very hard to unpick the purely cyclical component. I don't have any good feel at all for where the prime age female participation rate might peak.

Overall, the data don't give any huge overlooked insights into where we are relative to maximum unsustainable employment, mostly because the grand sweep of history and the changing attitudes to who works, and works at what, overlap the more cyclical aspects you'd like to isolate. If there is one useful extra bit of data, it's the prime age unemployment rate, which is confirming the RBNZ's "there or thereabouts" assessment.

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