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Aggregate Labor Force Participation

The labor force participation rate - the percentage of the working-age population (16 years and older) employed or looking for a job - rode an upward trend for 30 years, rising from less than 60 percent in the 1960s to about 67 percent in the late 1990s. After peaking at 67.3 percent in the first quarter of 2000, the participation rate fell steadily to around 66 percent by early 2005 and has remained at around 66 percent since then.

Labor Force Participation Rate, 1948-2008

The aggregate labor force participation rate typically reported is a more complicated measure than a simple average. It is the weighted sum of the labor force participation rates of all the separate age groups tracked, where the weights are the population distributions of each age-specific group. Because participation rates vary substantially across different age groups, compositional changes of the population can affect the aggregate participation rates.

Labor Force Participation Rate, by Age and Gender

The aging of the baby-boom generation is causing a key change in proportions of the different age groups comprising the U.S. population. For most of the postwar period, the size of the labor force rose steadily, pushed up by baby boomers entering prime working age. As the baby-boom cohort starts to retire, the population will shift from people with higher participation rates toward older people with lower participation rates.

Population Share by Age and Gender

When the baby-boom cohort entered the labor force - from 1980 to 2000 - the share of prime-age workers (ages 25 to 54) in the population increased from 53 percent to 56 percent. As this cohort starts retiring, the Census Bureau projects that the share of prime-age workers will decrease to 47 percent in the 2020s, and the share of older people will increase to 37 percent. Such a demographic change is expected to push down the aggregate labor force participation rate in the next decades.

Patterns in the labor force participation rates of different groups have changed in different ways over the past 30 years. The participation rate for men in their prime working years (25 to 54 years) has declined since the late 1970s. It has been fairly flat since 2002, after declining from 91.6 percent to 90.7 percent during the most recent labor market downturn. Meanwhile, prime-age women helped to drive up the aggregate labor force participation rate over the past 30 years, as their participation rate climbed. Since 1998, however, the rate for this group has stayed flat. From 2000 to 2005, their labor force participation rate fell relative to previous rates (from 76.9 percent to 75.1 percent), reflecting the sluggish labor market.

Workers at opposite ends of the age spectrum have been moving in different directions in recent years. The labor force participation rate of workers age 55 and older has been on the rise since the middle of the 1990s. In fact, it has risen 2.8 percentage points in the four years following the most recent recession. However, at below 40 percent, it is still lower than the aggregate participation rate. On the other hand, the rate for younger workers (16-24), which rose in the 1970s, has dropped dramatically since the 2001 recession.

Labor Force Participation Rate, by Age and Gender

In fact, the sharpest decline in labor force participation since the 2001 recession occurred among persons aged 16 to 24 - a 5.1 percentage point drop between the first quarter of 2001 and the first quarter of 2005. According to a recent study, while the share of this group in the aggregate labor supply is relatively small (4.2 percent), it has played a large role in aggregate labor force participation, accounting for almost two-thirds of its fall since 2000.

Changes in the Labor Force Participation Rate during Economic Downturns, by Age and Gender

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