YOU would expect strong job growth to be accompanied by falling unemployment, but America is proving that one does not always entail the other. Over the past year, employment is up by fully 3m but the unemployment rate has stayed around 5%. In fact, a few more workers are unemployed than a year ago (see chart). The reason is that more Americans are seeking jobs. Over the past 12 months the labour-force participation rate of so-called “prime-age” workers—those between 25 and 54—is up by just under one percentage point, the fastest growth recorded since January 1989. Economists trying to spot inflation on the horizon want to know how long this trend can continue.

The recent surge in prime-age participation follows a long decline from its peak, 84.6%, scaled in January 1999. Between then and September 2015, it tumbled by an average of about a fifth of a percentage point a year. Among men, it had been falling since the mid-1960s. The long slide accelerated after the financial crisis, as laid-off workers quit the labour force in droves.

Hence the refrain of some that low unemployment is a mirage: stronger economic growth,...Continue reading