STUMP » Articles » Labor force participation: first in a series of numbers without context » 9 August 2015, 18:11

Where Stu & MP spout off about everything.

Labor force participation: first in a series of numbers without context  


9 August 2015, 18:11

So I’ve caved in and created a category: numbers without context.

I actually first complained about this in a post last year called ‘Bitchery about sloppy use of numbers in political reporting’:

I get really tired of numbers being thrown around without context.

Why should I think $10 billion is a big number? 0.4% overall or $3000/person doesn’t sound all that big to me.

I also bitched about this more recently in a post on Chicago:


Now I’m putting my nerd hat on to tell you that if you are given a number in a news story without any context, to be extremely suspicious.

I am especially suspicious when I see budget cut numbers put out in a void without telling you that while, yes, $30 million does sound like a huge cut to an individual, but to a $5 billion dollar system, it’s nothing.

I get extremely suspicious when I have to dig and dig and dig to find a number to compare to that should have been the first thing reported.

I work with numbers a lot and order-of-magnitude concerns are primary for me. If the correction is beyond the significant figures for what I’m calculating, I don’t mess with it.


If my 80% funding myth crusade ends, my next one will be on contextless numbers.

Straighten up, y’all.

I finally saw something that has really pushed me over the edge, though for most people it’s nothing.


The story that really pissed me off was from Breitbart, on the latest release of employment numbers:

The number of people not in the labor force reached another record high in July, according to new jobs data released Friday by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The BLS reports that 93,770,000 people (16 and older) were neither employed last month nor had made specific efforts to find work in the prior four weeks.

I have something to tell you:


I am not commenting about their employment status, by the way. I am making a comment about the adult population of the U.S. increasing.

Here is something more:


Unsurprisingly, the labor force participation rate for seniors is relatively low.

I happen to look at labor force participation rates in the U.S. all the time, because of how it affects insurance trends (a big part of my day job). There have been interesting trends, but they are not all attributable to Obama’s administration. I will pull out some of those trends, but I’m not going into detail, because I’m not undercutting the work I actually get paid to do.


Let me excerpt from the Breitbart piece again:

The BLS reports that the civilian labor force did experience a slight uptick from 157,037,000 in June to 157,106,000 in July after the month of June saw it drop by 432,000.

While the labor participation rate remains at the lowest its been since the late 1970s, the BLS highlighted that the unemployment rate remained at 5.3 percent and nonfarm payroll jobs increased by 215,000.

Now, that’s interesting. What was going on after the late 1970s that may have boosted the labor force participation rate since then?

Could it be…. more women in the workforce?

Using data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, we get the overall labor force participation rate graph that looks like this:

Take a look at that: from 1948 – 1966, the labor force participation rate noodles around for a bit, then takes off, and peaks in 2000, then starts coming down. Hold off on your “Thanks, Obama!” rants for now.

I will note: in 2000, the oldest Baby Boomers were 54 years old.

Given that the pattern of labor force participation for men and women differs, why don’t we check those?

And I can noodle around myself, looking at different age slices of the different sexes, but I’m going to restrict my view to age 25 – 54 for both. Age 16 – 25, perhaps you’re still in school. Age 54 is pretty young for retirement, but disability really does start kicking in around then, so age 25-54 seems to me to be core working years.

There has been a slow, steady decrease of the male labor force participation rate, and the female labor force participation rate increased rapidly over the 1970s and 1980s, and pretty much plateaued in the 1990s.

I happen to know that there have been some stark changes at ages outside these — under age 25 (big decrease) and over age 55 (big increase)— during Obama’s term, but it’s not clear to me that it’s really all that connected.

These have been very long-term trends — I doubt the 75%-ish participation rate for women is going to budge much. The labor force participation rate for men could converge on where women are – but there’s still a sizeable gap. Yes, there are more male/female couples out there like my family’s, but it’s not that pronounced.

Don’t think that just because you’re on “my side”, Breitbart, I will let you slide with this sloppiness.

More people are working in prime working ages than decades ago, and that’s not necessarily good or bad. Many of those in the labor force would rather not be there, men or women. The specific trend seems to have little to do with Obama.


I was tempted to respond to this piece by plagiarist Fareed Zakaria, but I think this crap makes my point.

As lovely as it is to say that the focus on STEM education is detrimental to the extent that the humanities are short-changed, I say BAH.

Basic literacy is farther along that being able to do arithmetic and reason quantitatively. Part of this may be due to elementary school teachers being extremely weak in math themselves. I would definitely boost STEM education for elementary school teachers, as they tend to be very weak there.

As artificial as reading and writing is, it is far easier to do than to do math. Barbie was correct: math class is hard.

It is relatively easy to pick up on the humanities one missed in school — btw, here’s an excellent series on Great Books from Hillsdale College.

But more to the point: some of those saying they’re so great in humanities but suck in math may be fooling themselves:

Clue to Mr. Cohen: someone who flunked Algebra I six times is unlikely to be any great shakes in the humanities either. I hate to tell people who have been riding their “excellence” in humanities all these years to excuse their piss-poor performance in math & science: there is correlation between verbal intelligence and quantitative intelligence. A big correlation. The difference between math and literature is that it’s really easy to fake profundity in lit and really tough to fake math knowledge. Now many people have a preference for particular subjects — I prefer taking a math class to taking a chemistry class — and that can have an impact on performance. And teaching quality in math is really important for the majority of people who are not self-taught.

If you can’t understand that it doesn’t really matter that the absolute number of non-working people does not matter, but that the relative (i.e. percentage) amount does… and that these are parts of longer trends, then you should not be opining on the meaning of numbers changing.

I definitely notice this crap.

And those who do understand these numerical concepts, but decide to trumpet the ones that boosts their particular party line:


I’m watching you.

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