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Post-Pandemic Recovery for America’s Prime Age Labor Force: A Tale of Two Sexes

American Enterprise Institute

January 9, 2024

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) “monthly jobs report” last Friday closed the book on 2023, recording a continuing expansion of both labor supply and paid work in America last year—and continuation of the lowest annual unemployment rate since the 1960s. America not only missed the 2023 recession that many (including your humble servant) were expecting, but also managed to stay, in Fed-speak, “at or near full employment.”

Even so, there were important divergences in employment trends within the overall civilian workforce.

As an aging Western society, America’s civilian 55+ population is growing steadily. Yet the 55+ labor force in 2023 was only barely bigger than in 2019, on the eve of the Coronavirus pandemic—less than 200,000 larger, even though the 55+ cohort had risen by about four and a half million in the interim.

Labor force participation for older Americans plummeted during the pandemic. Curiously, it has yet to recover—notwithstanding vaccine rollouts and the post-pandemic labor shortage.

Consequently, as a purely arithmetic proposition, the 2023 increase in US labor supply and employment was almost entirely due to would-be workers under 55 years of age, the overwhelming majority of whom are of “prime working age”, defined as 25–54. In 2023 the “prime age” labor force grew by about 1.7 million, and year-end prime age employment was nearly 2 million higher in 2023 than in 2022.

For prime age Americans, the recovery from the “Covid shock” was completed in 2023, at least by conventional labor market performance measures.

Many more prime age Americans were in the labor force and paid jobs in 2023 than in 2019, the last pre-pandemic year (2.4 million and 3.1 million more, respectively). Likewise, rates of labor force participation and employment for the prime age contingent were higher in 2023 than in 2019—which, recall, had been the 10th year of an ongoing economic expansion.

Indeed: by BLS numbers, prime age labor force participation rates and work rates (aka “employment to population ratios”) in America were higher in 2023 than they had been for at least 20 years.

Glad tidings about employment may have contributed the year-end holiday cheer on Wall Street, insofar as it was already clear in early December that the US had beaten a 2023 recession.

But a closer look at the prime age labor market numbers shows that that this crucial component of the US workforce has not broken free from some of its own ghosts of Christmas Past. More specifically: prime age men have not yet been able to exorcise the labor force woes that have been haunting them for the past two generations.

We see this clearly in Figure 4, which scales labor force participation rates for prime age men and prime age women against their 2019 pre-pandemic levels.