The Pandemic’s Job Market Myths

on Jul19
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Remember the “she-cession”? What about the early-retirement wave, or America’s army of quiet quitters?

For economists and other forecasters, the pandemic and postpandemic economy has been a lesson in humility. Time and again, predictions about ways in which the labor market had been permanently changed have proved temporary or even illusory.

Women lost jobs early in the pandemic but have returned in record numbers, making the she-cession a short-lived phenomenon. Retirements spiked along with coronavirus deaths, but many older workers have come back to the job market. Even the person credited with provoking a national conversation by posting a TikTok video about doing the bare minimum at your job has suggested that “quiet quitting” may not be the way of the future — he’s into quitting out loud these days.

That is not to say nothing has changed. In a historically strong labor market with very low unemployment, workers have a lot more power than is typical, so they are winning better wages and new perks. And a shift toward working from home for many white-collar jobs is still reshaping the economy in subtle but important ways.

But the big takeaway from the pandemic recovery is simple: The U.S. labor market was not permanently worsened by the hit it suffered. It echoes the aftermath of the 2008 recession, when economists were similarly skeptical of the labor market’s ability to bounce back — and similarly proved wrong once the economy strengthened.

“The profession has not fully digested the lessons of the recovery from the Great Recession,” said Adam Ozimek, the chief economist at the Economic Innovation Group, a research organization in Washington. One of those lessons, he said: “Don’t bet against the U.S. worker.”

Here is a rundown of the labor market narratives that rose and fell over the course of the pandemic recovery.

Women lost jobs heavily early in the pandemic, and people fretted that they would be left lastingly worse off in the labor market — but that has not proved to be the case.

In the wake of the pandemic, employment has actually rebounded faster among women than among men — so much so that, as of June, the employment rate for women in their prime working years, commonly defined as 25 to 54, was the highest on record. (Employment among prime-age men is back to where it was before the pandemic, but is still shy of a record.)

Another frequent narrative early in the pandemic: It would cause a wave of early retirements.

Historically, when people lose jobs or leave them late in their working lives, they tend not to return to work — effectively retiring, whether or not they label it that way. So when millions of Americans in their 50s and 60s left the labor force early in the pandemic, many economists were skeptical that they would ever come back.

All these narratives share a common thread: While some cautioned against drawing early conclusions, many labor market experts were skeptical that the job market would fully recover from the shock of the pandemic, at least in the short term. Instead, the rebound has been swift and broad, defying gloomy narratives.

This isn’t the first time economists have made this mistake. It’s not even the first time this century. The crippling recession that ended in 2009 pushed millions of Americans out of the labor force, and many economists embraced so-called structural explanations for why they were slow to return. Maybe workers’ skills or professional networks had eroded during their long periods of unemployment. Maybe they were addicted to opioids, or drawing disability benefits, or trapped in parts of the country with few job opportunities.

In the end, though, a much simpler explanation proved correct. People were slow to return to work because there weren’t enough jobs for them. As the economy healed and opportunities improved, employment rebounded among pretty much every demographic group.

The rebound from the pandemic recession has played out much faster than the one that took place after the 2008 downturn, which was worsened by a global financial blowup and a housing market collapse that left long-lasting scars. But the basic lesson is the same. When jobs are plentiful, most people will go to work.

“People want to adapt, and people want to work: Those things are generally true,” said Julia Coronado, the founder of MacroPolicy Perspectives, a research firm. She noted that the pool of available workers expanded further with time and amid solid immigration. “People are resilient. They figure things out.”

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