Unemployment Down, Wages Stagnant, Retirement Difficult: An Economic Survey

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A job applicant looks at job listings for the Riverside Hotel at a job fair hosted by Job News South Florida, in Sunrise, Fla, June 21, 2018. (Lynne Sladky/AP)
A job applicant looks at job listings for the Riverside Hotel at a job fair hosted by Job News South Florida, in Sunrise, Fla, June 21, 2018. (Lynne Sladky/AP)

With Meghna Chakrabarti

Unemployment is at rock bottom but wages are flat and a skyrocketing number of older Americans can’t afford to retire. We’ll go behind the numbers for answers.


Heidi Shierholz, senior economist and director of policy at the Economic Policy Institute. She served as chief economist at the Department of Labor in the Obama administration. (@hshierholz)

Thomas Geoghegan, labor lawyer and author. Author of "Only One Thing Can Save Us: Why America Needs a New Kind of Labor Movement."

Tom Coomer, 80, works as a greeter at his local Walmart. His granddaughter started a GoFundMe campaign to raise money for him after he lost his pension.

Alicia Munnell, director of the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College (@RetirementRsrch). She served on the President’s Council of Economic Advisers and as assistant secretary of the Treasury for economic policy in the Clinton administration.

From The Reading List

Economic Policy Institute: "What labor market changes have generated inequality and wage suppression?" — "Labor markets in capitalist economies are fundamentally tilted against individual workers’ ability to bargain effectively with employers. Policy does not have to be rigged for employers to give them particular clout in labor markets; instead, the very nature of these labor markets gives them clout. In the past, when economic growth was broadly shared across the population, it was because policymakers understood this basic asymmetry and used policy levers to bolster the leverage and bargaining power of workers. Conversely, recent decades’ rise of inequality and anemic wage growth has resulted from a stripping away of these policy bulwarks to workers’ labor market power.

"Why it matters: Recent research on 'monopsony power'—the leverage enjoyed by employers to set their workers’ pay—is a valuable contribution to our understanding of the asymmetry inherent in labor markets. However, 'monopsony power' is often a confusing term to even the most savvy economic writers and researchers, and too often it is used only to describe markets that are concentrated (i.e., where there are relatively few employers). Market concentration can indeed suppress workers’ wages, but employer power exists even in markets with lots of employers. If only the narrow conception of 'monopsony power' is recognized and policymakers focus only on interventions that target the effect of market concentration (antitrust, for example), then other measures that could more effectively restore the balance of power in labor markets might not get the consideration they should."

Washington Post: "The benefits of this ‘strong economy’ have not reached all Americans" — "Jerome H. Powell, chair of the Federal Reserve and one of the world’s top economic leaders, has spent much of 2018 telling people that the U.S. economy is strong and almost 'too good to be true.' But last week, he stressed a different message — not everyone has been lifted by faster growth.

"'The benefits of this strong economy and sound financial system have not reached all Americans,' Powell said in Dec. 3 speech. 'The aggregate statistics tend to mask important disparities by income, race and geography.'

"He repeated that message in a Dec. 6 speech. 'While the economy is strong overall, we recognize that some communities have yet to feel the full benefits of the ongoing expansion,' he said."

The Economist: "Why American unemployment is so low" — "Markets may be jittery, but America’s job-creation machine continues to roll on. America’s economy added 155,000 net new jobs in November. Strikingly, the unemployment rate is 3.7%, which is the lowest level in roughly half a century. The last time America enjoyed a similar stretch of low unemployment it was preparing to put men on the moon. How has the American economy managed to achieve such low rates of joblessness?

"The official rate of unemployment is a ratio of the number of people counted as unemployed to the number considered to be in the labour force, which includes everyone who has a job or wants one. The unemployment rate can wobble for all sorts of reasons. It rose toward 10% during the Great Recession as employers shed staff. Early in the recovery, the unemployment rate began to drop even though hiring remained weak, because workers frustrated by the lack of jobs stopped looking for work and were no longer counted as part of the labour force. The unemployment rate is so low at the moment not only because hiring has been strong, but also because some people who might otherwise be counted as jobless are still not looking for work."

CBS News: "'I blame myself': Retirement remains out of reach for millions of Americans" — "For the first time since the 1940s, Americans are reaching retirement age in worse financial shape than their parents. An estimated 10 million people older than 65 are still working — a number that has more than doubled since 1985.

"'If I had planned harder when I was younger and if things had went better, I wouldn't be going to work this morning. I'd be going fishing or I'd be going hunting,' said Tom Coomer. 'Or I would be ... going on a little trip somewhere.'


"'That's in my mind a lot and I blame myself for it.'

"At 80 years old, Coomer is still working as a part-time greeter five days a week at a Walmart in Oklahoma. Coomer is one of the nearly 10 million Americans over 65 who are still working."

Washington Post: "Workers are ghosting their employers like bad dates" — "Economists report that workers are starting to act like millennials on Tinder: They’re ditching jobs with nary a text.

"'A number of contacts said that they had been "ghosted," a situation in which a worker stops coming to work without notice and then is impossible to contact,' the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago noted in December’s Beige Book, which tracks employment trends.

"National data on economic 'ghosting' is lacking. The term, which usually applies to dating, first surfaced in 2016 on But companies across the country say silent exits are on the rise."

Stefano Kotsonis produced this show for broadcast.

This program aired on December 17, 2018.



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