Has the American Labor Market Already Peaked?

There’s no profession more intricately connected with the state of American labor than the investment banking world. Billions hang in the balance on judgements about the state of the American and the global labor markets. Most in the investment banking community think the labor market has lots of room to grow before any discussion of employment peaking is warranted.

Are they right?

Here are a couple of graphs that may make you double think the state of American labor (with some counterarguments as well).

A Look at the Labor Picture Right Now

Here’s a look at the American labor market as it stands today. Overall, the past year has been quite good to workers in the U.S.

Since seeing employment growth “bottom” in March 2014, month-over-month employment growth has been above 200K every month except two. The strong performance begs the question – is the labor market peaking?

Here are two arguments that suggest such a question is warranted.


Year-over-Year Employment Growth

The first graph looks at year-over-year growth in employment. The labels on the high growth points are the employment growth rates during the respective business cycle peak.

In 1973, employment growth peaked at 4.63%.  In 1978, 5.43%. In 1981, 1.96%.  In 1984, 5.44%.  In 1988, 3.28%. In 1995, 3.47%.  In 2000, 2.55%.  In 2006, 2.16%.

The 2.34% for 2015 is February 2015.  This is the strongest growth rate we’ve seen so far during the current expansion. Interestingly, since February 2015, employment growth has declined to 2.11%. It is this deceleration that suggests the labor market might be peaking (or perhaps already has peaked).

The deceleration from peak occurs in every business cycle.


The Part-Time/Full-Time Picture

The second area signaling perhaps that the labor market is peaking is the part-time/full-time employment view. The top graphic in the following figure is the month-over-month growth in employment (absolute net new jobs). The middle graphic is the month-over-month growth in full-time employment.  In June 2015, it came in at a healthy +370K. The bottom graphic is the month-over-month growth in part-time employment.  In 2015, it came in a -147K.

What does this picture have to do with the labor market?

The answer is that when there’s a trend in shifting from part-time to full-time employment, it’s generally a signal that the labor market might be peaking. As corroborating evidence, take a look at the 2000 to 2003 experience and the 2006 to 2009 experience.


As indicated by the black boxes, prior to the prior two recessions, part-time employment dropped before the employment picture peaked, fairly similar to what we’re seeing today.



Counterargument: Why Might the Labor Market NOT Be Peaking?

There are, of course, lots of good reasons to argue that the American labor has a long way to go before peaking.

Factors that are nowhere near peaking include wage growth (Average Hourly Earnings are stuck around 2%, well below the overheating 3.5% experienced in 2006), lack of inflation, depressed labor force participation, and an unemployment rate still above peaking level.


Overall, job growth in the U.S. continues to be quite strong. The strength, of course, raises the question on how long it can continue to go on.

Some point to various indicators that suggest jobs could continue to grow another five or six years. These points are certainly valid, as are the counterpoints addressed here.

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