Historians, if they care, will say that 2015 was a slow year on the employment front. It was more than that, though, and those of us who lived through it know what else was afoot.
The best news came from the statistics. In the latest available year-over-year comparison, November 2014 and 2015, official unemployment dropped over one million. The number of discouraged workers fell 100,000, and those in other marginally attached categories were off as well, led by the count of people wanting work but not trying for it for a year or more down almost 400,000. The long-term unemployed, or those out for 27 weeks or longer and still looking, were off 25 percent from 2.8 million to 2.1 million, and the number of people working part-time for economic reasons, or wanting a full-time opportunity but not finding one, improved from 6.9 million to 5.8 million. The AJSN (American Job Shortage Number), showing latent employment demand, dropped more than 1.3 million to another post-recession low, but tells us our country could still fill more than 17.2 million additional positions. Average private-sector pay improved modestly but more than inflation, up 2.1% from $24.66 per hour to $25.20. On the other side, those saying they did not want a job kept rising and ended up more than 2.7 million to 89 million, and labor force participation was off from 62.8% to 62.4%.
A good year can mean few efforts to improve, and that is what happened otherwise. On the jobs front, President Barack Obama’s administration did almost nothing. Proposals from Democrats consistently missed the mark, with an overemphasis on different average pay between the sexes, a totally unrefined number reflecting literally dozens of factors other than discrimination, and higher minimum wages, which can only cut the amount of work. When 2016 presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, as her competitor Bernie Sanders had done before, proposed the large infrastructure building plan our country badly needs, she hit a sour note by saying it should create vast numbers of middle-class jobs, which all but assures that even a moderately conservative legislature will reject it. The Republicans offered a mixed bag on how to improve work and the economy, ranging from removing anti-employment regulations (great, but why are they there now?) and comprehensively maximizing both renewable and non-renewable energy resources (good), to cutting corporate taxes (companies are cash-rich as it is) and repealing Obamacare, maybe in their heart of hearts to replace it with nothing (as bad an idea for employment as it is for our country’s health). The Federal Reserve acted as if there was a tidal pull to raise interest rates, and not only did that but discussed doing it again in a few months, which not only gratuitously endangered stock prices but showed they can’t stand prosperity.
Some things this year simply changed. While 3D printing went nowhere widespread, drones and self-driving cars roared to the front of technological progress news, and by this time two years from now are more or less certain to be replacing human workers. The sharing economy, headed by gypsy cab networks Uber and Lyft and semi-legal hotel service Airbnb, continued to grow and grab headlines, but their peak may be in sight, with their managements now trying to fight off being forced to join the adult business world through unionization and required working condition improvements. The acceptability of paying people to complete various chores, through the likes of TaskRabbit, seemed to spill over into normal jobs, with companies as large and established as Target and The Gap taking to telling their employees minutes in advance that they will neither be working nor earning money that day. Unlike such now-implemented developments as robot sobriety-checking bartenders, the stories about what might be called Amazon’s office-job intensity made front pages, reminding us how simple supply and demand can make jobs ever more demanding. A flock of articles on the best and worst cities for careers documented that internal United States differences are as large as ever, and showed us that the recent principle of the Sun Belt being optimal no longer holds, with former easy-job standbys Orlando and Las Vegas now well behind the likes of once rusty Pittsburgh.
So what’s coming up in 2016? I hope we can continue to avoid a recession, but we may not, as even if our public policy and private decisions prove well-tuned, both closely connected China and Europe are in trouble. Education’s role in getting jobs will attract even more attention, with students and their parents increasingly incisive about the true values of the many choices. With no trends or new tax laws to stop it or even slow it down, economic inequality, and with it the pooling up of money in corporations and the very wealthiest people, will get more extreme. Because of that, the Fed will discover that no matter how much cash is in circulation, inflation will barely if at all challenge two percent, and months after they send interest rates up again they will bring them back down, when lower job creation numbers and increasing official unemployment scare them. Somebody will get elected president and, according to the oddsmakers backing up their predictions with money, it will probably be Clinton. That will mean either four or eight years of the same course we have been on, for better or worse, but with the jobs crisis not likely to stay muted. As the numbers say, we have been lucky with American employment – may that continue for as long as it can.