Are Jobless Recoveries The New Norm?

This week at Vox EU an interesting piece by Henry Siu & Nir Jaimovich argues that jobless recoveries, at least in the United States, are the new norm. It’s called “Jobless recoveries and the disappearance of routine occupations“.

They talk about job polarisation where there is an increasing division between high skill and low skill jobs, with the “middle” jobs that are routine and can be automated or mechanised are no longer needed. The reduced reliance on labour-intensive production methods in manufacturing and increased reliance on software and robots to perform routine tasks is an example of this trend.

To examine this against they data they constructed a counterfactual scenario – if routine employment rebounded after a recession the same way as it did before job polarisation started happening, what would total employment look like?

In the 2001 recession:

For the global financial crisis:

They conclude:

The loss of routine jobs in recent recessions has given rise to jobless recoveries. Aggregate employment struggles to rebound following recessions since middle-wage, routine occupations no longer recover. Moreover, employment growth following recent recessions has been unevenly distributed across pay, concentrated in high- and low-wage occupations. A recent report by the National Employment Law Project (2012) indicates that the recovery from the Great Recession has been particularly lopsided, with the majority of jobs added being low-paying jobs.

What does this mean for New Zealand’s unemployment crisis? If the US situation applies to New Zealand then we should be very concerned indeed. We already suffer from low levels of labour productivity and rising labour costs. More flexible hiring practises including the 90 day trial period have not made any difference in net job creation.

It means that we need to think careful when thinking about who is unemployed. Are they unemployed for cyclical reasons – because their employers failed due to lower demand for the goods and services they produced? Or are they unemployed because their job is no longer needed or they no longer have the skills necessary to perform a similar job in the same industry?

If the structural changes in the labour market are not addressed promptly, hysteresis will set in and the long-term unemployed from the past few years will be permanently locked out of the labour market. The urgency of addressing this problem is clear – if workers aren’t supported through the retraining and adding skills process they will not be able to participate in any recovery in the labour market.