This Employment Ratio is at a 34 Year Low

A disappointing increase of only 54,000 jobs was accompanied by an unemployment rate for May of 9.1%, up from the previous month’s 9.0%. The consensus was for 9.0% and their own estimate was for 9.1%. The employment-to-population ratio is hovering around levels first seen in November 1977.

Here is the lead paragraph from the Employment Situation Summary released this morning by the Bureau of Labor Statistics:

Nonfarm payroll employment changed little (+54,000) in May, and the unemployment rate was essentially unchanged at 9.1 percent, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported today. Job gains continued in professional and business services, health care (NYSE:XLV), and mining (NYSE:XLB). Employment levels in other major private-sector industries were little changed, and local government employment continued to decline.

The unemployment peak for the current cycle was 10.2%, one year ago in October 2009. The chart here shows the pattern of unemployment, recessions and both the nominal and real (inflation-adjusted) price of the S&P Composite (NYSE:SPY) since 1948.

Unemployment is usually a lagging indicator that moves inversely with equity prices (See first chart below). Note the increasing peaks in unemployment in 1971, 1975 and 1982. The inverse pattern becomes clearer when viewed against real (inflation-adjusted) S&P Composite, with its successively lower bear market bottoms. The mirror relationship seems to be repeating itself with the current and previous bear markets.


The second chart shows the unemployment rate for the civilian population unemployed 27 weeks and over. The May number is 4% — down from December’s adjusted 4.1%. This measure gives an alternate perspective on the relative severity of economic conditions. As we readily see, this metric is significantly higher than the peak in 1983, which came six months after the broader measure topped out at 10.8%.


The inverse correlation between the two series is obvious. We can also see the accelerating growth of two-income households in the early 1980’s. The recent ratio low of 58.2% in November 2010 and December 2009 was a level not seen since August 1983. In fact, those recent lows were almost back to the 58.1% ratio of March 1953, when Eisenhower was president, the Korean War was still underway, and rumors were circulating that soft drinks would soon be sold in cans. The latest ratio, for May 2011, is 58.4%, unchanged from last month.

The employment-population ratio will be interesting to watch going forward. The first wave of Boomers will be a downward force on this ratio. The oldest of them were eligible for early retirement when the Great Recession began, and the Boomer transition to the retirement will accelerate over the next several years.

The third chart is one of my favorites from CalculatedRisk. It shows the job losses from the start of the employment recession, in percentage terms compared to all recessions since 1948. Note the addition of the dotted-line alternative for the current cycle, which shows unemployment excluding the temporary census hiring.

Job Losses

The start date of 1948 was determined by the earliest monthly unemployment figures collected by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The best source for the historic data is the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis.

Here is a link to a Google source for customizable charts on US unemployment data (not seasonally adjusted) since 1990. You can compare unemployment at the national, state, and county level.

Doug Short Ph.d is the author of

Learn More with Econ 101: Your Ultimate Cheat Sheet to Unemployment Numbers >>