NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Are American Workers Getting Lazy?

April 5, 2012

The growth of the American economy has largely been driven by gains in productivity by workers.  Defined as the amount of work accomplished by employees per unit of time, the United States' high level of productivity has allowed American workers to garner the highest wages in the world, says

However, gradual demographic changes (multiplied by the recent recession) threaten to undermine this productivity and compromise future economic growth.  This can be seen among current young workers, largely male, who seem to lack the can-do attitude of previous generations.

  • In the 16- to 24-year-old male demographic, the workforce participation rate has fallen from nearly 80 percent in the late 1970s to around 58 percent now.
  • A component of this trend is that younger workers seem to be more selective of the type of work they choose, turning their noses up at jobs they believe to be beneath them.
  • Political scientist Charles Murray also points out that the emancipation of the female worker has undermined the social status of working-class men, as they are no longer viewed as necessary providers.

These trends have led to swathes of young workers who opt for unemployment, or settle for less-than-optimal productivity if they are employed.

This issue is augmented further by the gradual retirement of baby boomers.  Baby boomers are difficult to replace with unskilled and low-productivity younger workers -- a problem that contributes to the aggregate loss of productivity across the economy.

  • Labor force participation is falling precipitously because older workers (with higher participation rates) are retiring while younger workers (with lower participation rates) constitute a larger share of the working-age population.
  • UBS economist Maury Harris found that of the 5.5 million workers who left the workforce after 2006, only 20 percent left because they were discouraged by being unable to find a job -- the rest left because of demographics.
  • Harris believes the aging of baby boomers will drive the labor participation rate down to 62.7 percent by 2020 -- a level not seen since the 1970s.

The broad implications for these changes are a higher natural rate of unemployment, higher-than-normal inflation, lower-than-normal wages and slower-than-normal economic growth.

Source: Anthony Mirhaydari, "Are American Workers Getting Lazy?", March 21, 2012.

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