The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

4 percent unemployment might be the new 5 percent unemployment

(Karen Bleier/AFP)

The economy is adding a lot of jobs, but still needs to add a lot more.

That's the simple message of the latest jobs report, which was good, but not quite as good as the headline numbers suggest. Now, if you're a glass-half-full kind of person, you'd point out that the economy added 223,000 jobs in June, for a three-month average of 221,000. That's pretty healthy, and more than enough to keep bringing the unemployment rate down. But if you're a glass-half-empty sort, you'd counter that the economy lost 60,000 jobs in revisions to April and May, that the labor force shrank by 432,000 in June, that the share of 25- to 54-year-olds who are actually working hasn't increased at all since the start of the year, and that workers didn't get a raise last month. In the past year, average hourly earnings are up only 2 percent; in a normal economy it would be something like 3.5 percent.

This shouldn't be that much of a surprise, though. This is the same recovery we've grown to know and dislike so much these past six years. Employers keep increasing head counts and paychecks at only a slow and steady pace, with no sign of either picking up anytime soon. Now, in theory, this shouldn't continue for much longer. Unemployment is finally low enough that companies should have to start competing over workers by paying them more. But that assumes we really are close to what economists call "full employment."

Maybe we're not. What does that mean? Well, that's the point at which pushing unemployment down any more would also push inflation up. In other words, it's the most jobs we can have while keeping the inflation genie in the bottle. So central bankers, who take their jobs as the guardians of price stability as seriously as can be, want to steer the economy there and no further. Right now, the Federal Reserve thinks that's at 5.2 percent unemployment.

At a moment like this, it seems very hard to conclude that's right. The fact that wage growth is still so low tells us that there must be enough slack left in the labor market that employers aren't jockeying over workers yet. So do the relatively low levels of employment for so-called prime-age workers between 25 and 54 years old, who, for the most part, are too old to be in school but too young to be retired. Then there are the millions of people who want full-time jobs but can only find part-time ones. Add it all up, and the jobs gap is a lot bigger than the unemployment rate would lead you to believe. Not only that, though, but the "normal" unemployment rate should be falling anyway now that the baby boomers are retiring and there aren't as many people looking for jobs. Four percent unemployment might be the new 5 percent unemployment. In other words, the recovery still might have a long way to go.

The most important word there is "might." Nobody knows how low unemployment can go before inflation picks up. Everybody, including the Fed, is just guessing. The only thing we do know is that we're not there now. And that's why there's a strong case for the Fed to wait until we get there — or at least until the data says we're getting close — before raising rates. The Fed has said it might start doing so in September, but where's the rush? There's barely any inflation or wage pressure.

The recovery still has miles to go before it sleeps.