INDIANAPOLIS – We are deluged with “news” that the American labor market is a shambles. Business owners say, “We can’t get people to work, even with higher wages and improved benefit packages.” Well maybe, just maybe, workers have had it with low wages and inadequate respect, and the worm has turned.

Maybe, COVID didn’t make people lust for the days of old when workers were commodities instead of individuals. Or, perhaps, the whole labor shortage is that mountain made from a convenient mole hill.
“People today just aren’t willing to work!” Strange, but the size of the national labor force (those employed or seeking employment) was down in 2021 by just 1.4% from its pre-COVID 2019 peak. Of course, it’s more impressive if we say the labor force is down by 2.3 million persons and then fail to mention the base we’re talking about is in excess of 163 million persons.
“You can’t ignore the fact that the portion of Americans in the labor force is 61.7%, its lowest level since 1976.” Certainly, we can’t ignore it. But don’t forget we’re coming off a peak of 67.1% in 1997. That’s 25 years ago and there’s a chance the nation has changed in that time.
Remember too, the labor force participation rate excludes from its population base persons 16 years and older who are incarcerated, in the military, in nursing homes or other long-term confinement. Growth in these populations has been increasing over time, reducing the number of persons who might have been part of the labor force.

In addition, very large numbers of persons have been and continue to be Baby Boomers aging out of the labor force. Those born in 1946 are 77 in 2022 and the babies of 1963 will be 60 next year.
Another factor depressing the labor market would be parents staying home to school their children. Estimates of this activity vary from 1.8 to 2.5 million students. How many parents are involved is anybody’s guess at this point.
“Part-time… that’s what all these people want. You can’t find anybody anywhere any more willing to work full-time.” Actually, part-time employment peaked in 2010, at 19.7% of those with jobs. By 2021, it was down to 16.7%.

Employers believe the remedy for their labor woes is more vocational education, less education for life in a civil society. “Skill enhancement” is the mantra of the day. Will STEM at Pre-K sites be the next legislative mandate for education?

How about some things truly radical? Retrain management with lessons about the differences between the 19th and 21st centuries. Decongest institutional structures to reduce non-productive human overhead. Reform the media so that “terror-for-profit” is not their leading operational principle. 

Mr. Marcus is an economist. Reach him at