The ranks of American workers are thinning—often because people aged out of the workforce, or never entered it. Their absence could impede the economy’s ability to grow, and make for a less prosperous future. “Your call is very important to us—please stay on the line." Some customer service agents have moved on to more lucrative pastures during the pandemic, but a lot of America’s “missing workers" might never be coming back.
The shift could leave businesses continuing to struggle to find workers in the years ahead, and ultimately slow the pace at which the economy can grow without overheating. The Covid crisis roiled the U.S. job market like nothing before.
First, in the early days of the pandemic, millions of people were suddenly without work, sending the unemployment rate from 3.5% in February 2020 to 14.7% two months later. Then, jobs came roaring back. Not all the workers did, though.
A constellation of factors—fears of contracting and spreading Covid, lingering symptoms, the financial wherewithal provided by several rounds of government relief, lost access to child care and a shifting of priorities set off by the pandemic—conspired to keep people off the job. Even now, and despite economists’ warnings that the country is on the brink of recession, America seems short of workers. At the end of November, the Labor Department recorded a seasonally adjusted 10.5 million job openings, or 1.7 unfilled jobs for each person counted as unemployed.
The highest that ratio got in the 20 years of available data before the pandemic was 1.2. It certainly seems like there are plenty of people still waiting on the sidelines. For December, the Labor Department reported that the labor-force participation rate—the share of the
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