Every time the monthly employment numbers come out, we get to see what's dubbed "The Scariest Jobs Chart Ever." Prepared by Bill McBride of Calculated Risk, it shows how much the current recovery lags recoveries going back to 1948. The most recent update for August is an eye-opener into the damage done during the recession, and the frustrating return to growth. The problem is that you can't compare what's going on now with what went on in 1957 because the world is simply not the same. You see analytic trickery in other ways, such as estimating when the country will finally make up all the jobs that have been lost since the beginning of the downturn. Based on the current pace, the year is 2023. Well, first of all, such estimates are meaningless because the economy doesn't operate in a straight line. But more than that, trying to determine when things get back to "normal" misses the point of what's happening. Jobs that were lost over the last five years are never coming back. A middle-age middle manager who was laid off is not going to be miraculously rehired in that position or anything like it. Same with the factory worker and the receptionist and the copy editor. They're finished. Many of the people who held those positions have already pulled out of the workforce and others are moving into different jobs (often at lower pay levels). This process is complicated and often disheartening, and it's hard to tell where it will lead to in five or 10 years. I wonder, for example, about how many part-time workers would actually prefer a full-time position? Among folks still in school or nearing their retirement or in households with a primary earner or in a creative pursuit (writing, music, etc.), working part-time is a preference, not a necessity. This represents a profound work- and lifestyle shift, and it's a much bigger deal than the numbers pumped out today would indicate. But they're ambiguous numbers, incomplete numbers and in an age when everyone pretends to know everything, who wants that?
*The Washington Post's Brad Plumer has a good analysis on why the U.S. labor force keeps shrinking. The reasons go well beyond frustrated job seekers.