What would the job market look like if there’d been no COVID pandemic?
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The job market looks pretty good, given where this economy has been over the past three years.
Compared to the period just before the pandemic, there are now half a million more jobs and the unemployment rate is the same low 3.5%, which was the rate in 1969.
But what if the pandemic hadn’t happened?
Where would this economy — and this job market — be in that case? Let’s do an experiment in counterfactual economic history.
A half-million more jobs seems pretty decent.
But, said University of Michigan economist Betsey Stevenson, if there’d been no pandemic and job growth had stayed on the trajectory it was on between 2015 and 2020:
“We would have had 5 million more jobs, not 500,000 more jobs.”
And the jobs we got would have been different.
“A lot of our job growth prior to the pandemic came from education and health services,” Stevenson said.
Boy, did the pandemic derail that train. Employment has struggled to recover, let alone grow to meet new demand.
If not for the pandemic’s health dangers, a lot more baby boomers would still be working, said Harvard economist Jason Furman.
“At this point, you’re primarily talking about men over the age of 55 who have exited the labor force and have not returned,” he said.
In our imaginary no-COVID world, we’d have more waiters and cooks, fewer folks punching in at Amazon and Target warehouses.
John Leer at polling firm Morning Consult said consumers haven’t gone back to their pre-COVID ways.
“They continue to spend less time in restaurants, going out,” Leer said. “More of their money is spent on delivery items in their house. And the jobs have essentially followed that change in consumer preferences.”
In some ways, though, October 2022 doesn’t look so different from where things were headed in February 2020.
Unemployment was as low as it is now. And wages were rising — especially for low-paid workers. Those wages just aren’t going as far now. Because what we didn’t have much of in 2020 was inflation.
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