December's jobs report showed a holding pattern. A gain of 155,000 jobs is a decent but hardly spectacular figure, while unemployment stayed constant at 7.8 percent. As we do every month, let's break down the Bureau of Labor Statistics report's main findings, in six charts.

Unemployment and payroll numbers

The jobs market continued to recover slowly but surely. We gained 155,000 jobs in December, almost exactly as forecasters predicted, and unemployment was unchanged at a revised 7.8 percent. Then again, last month's job gains were revised upward from 146,000 to 161,000; taking that and October's downward revision of 1,000 into account, the total job gains found in the report number 169,000:

Labor force participation

The participation rate, which measures the percentage of working-age people who are either working or actively looking for a job, is unchanged from November at 63.6 percent, indicating that we aren't reversing the mass exodus from the workforce that occurred during the 2007-2009 recession:


Adding to a disturbing pattern of recent months, the jobs gained in December were exclusively in the private sector. That sector gained 168,000 jobs, while the public sector, suffering from federal and state austerity policies, lost 13,000:

Alternative unemployment

As we explain every month, the BLS releases six unemployment measures. There’s U3, the number that shows up in all the news articles, which counts people who don’t have jobs but who have looked for one in the past four weeks. But there are also U1, U2, U4, U5 and U6. U1 and U2 numbers are usually lower than U3, and they measure the percentage of people who have been unemployed for 15 weeks or longer and the percentage who have lost jobs or done temporary work during the month being measured, respectively.

The figures for U4, U5 and U6 are usually higher than for U3. Each of these categories includes everyone in all the lower categories: all people in U3 are in U4; all people in U4 are in U5; and all people in U5 are in U6. U4 adds people who have stopped looking for work because they’ve concluded that none is available. U5 adds people who would like to work but for whatever reason have not looked for work recently. U6 adds the underemployed, or part-time workers who want to be working full-time but cannot for whatever reason.

Four of the six measures were unchanged in December, while U4 and U5 both jumped up by 0.2 percentage points:


Job sectors were hit to varying degrees by the downturn. Construction took the heaviest hit, while health and education were barely hurt at all. The pattern stayed firm in December; even as construction jobs logged a welcome gain of 30,000 positions, education and health added a whopping 65,000 jobs.


Private-sector wages are rising, and last month's jump of 1.63 percent over December 2011 is the biggest year-over-year increase since July. But the increases are still well below the inflation rate, indicating that wages are, as usual, falling in real terms for ordinary workers: