The decade that just came to an end delivered an underappreciated benefit to Americans that they’d surely notice if it were missing: Extraordinary job growth.
The 2010s don’t yet have a defining cultural or political identity (Decade of tech? Global warming? Trump?), what’s certain is 2019 marked the longest economic expansion in U.S. history. The economy has been growing for more than 10 years, since June 2009 when the Great Recession lifted.
Economic growth begets job creation, so think of the 2010s as the decade of expanding opportunity and prosperity for American workers.
In early 2010, the U.S. unemployment rate was a sobering 9.7%. Today, the jobless rate is 3.5%, the lowest in 50 years, and at a near-record low for African Americans and Latinos. Back in 2010, more than 6 million Americans had been out of work for more than six months. Today, that number is about 1 million.
What does 3.5% unemployment mean? It means that if you want a job, chances are good you’ll find one. The labor participation rate for people in their prime working years of 25 to 54 is 80.3%, the highest level in more than a decade. Nationally, there are many more job openings than unemployed people, according to the Labor Department’s Bureau of Labor Statistics.
There are now some American cities as nearby as Iowa — Ames and Iowa City — with jobless rates at or below 1.6%. Both are college towns, you might notice, but Dubuque checks in at 1.9%. Illinois has higher unemployment (3.9%) than Iowa (2.6%), Indiana (3.2%) and Wisconsin (3.3%), but people everywhere are working — both collecting paychecks and gaining experience that helps lead to career advancement. What a remarkably positive situation.
The strength of the jobs economy is one of those good-news stories that doesn’t receive its due. When the Brookings Institution asked 10 of its scholars to identify the most important stories in economics over the past decade, none mentioned the 50-year low in unemployment. They preferred to talk about the risk of low interest rates, income inequality and other issues. Not one word about job growth. Really?
Pessimism seems to be spread by economists and analysts who are so surprised by the longevity of this growth cycle that they spend their time trying to debunk it by anticipating the next recession. Their predictions have been wrong.
Certainly this economy has weaknesses and shortcomings. There is always a potential recession lurking on the horizon or beyond, just as there is always disparity between those who become wealthy and those who struggle. But the wealthiest Americans aren’t the only ones benefiting as the economy expands. Gallup polling suggests that 54% of Americans own stocks either directly or via mutual funds, pension accounts and other retirement kitties. So with the S&P 500’s gain for the year at about 29%, plenty of workers and retirees should be feeling more secure.
This decade’s remarkable feat is that even as the growth cycle ages and unemployment falls, employers continue to create jobs — for the benefit of all Americans. As more people go to work, competition for their services intensifies and wages rise.
The question business owners, policymakers and politicians should be obsessed with going forward isn’t what’s wrong with this economy, but how to keep the growth going. Because jobs, opportunity and prosperity are what matter most.