FRBSF Economic Letter Oct. 11
Estimates suggest the new normal for U.S. GDP growth has dropped to between 1½ and 1¾%, noticeably slower than the typical postwar pace. The slowdown stems mainly from demographics and educational attainment. As baby boomers retire, employment growth shrinks. And educational attainment of the workforce has plateaued, reducing its contribution to productivity growth through labor quality. The GDP growth forecast assumes that, apart from these effects, the modest productivity growth is relatively “normal”—in line with its pace for most of the period since 1973.
Economic growth during the recovery has been slower on average than its trend from before the Great Recession, prompting policymakers to ask if there is a “new normal” for U.S. GDP growth.
This Economic Letter argues that the new normal pace for GDP growth, in real (inflation-adjusted) terms, might plausibly fall in the range of 1½ to 1¾%. This estimate is based on trends in demographics, education, and productivity. The aging and retirement of the baby boom generation is expected to hold down employment growth relative to population growth. Further, educational attainment has plateaued, reducing the contribution of labor quality to productivity growth. The slower forecast for overall GDP growth assumes that, apart from these effects, productivity growth is relatively normal, if modest—in line with its pace for most of the period since 1973.
Subdued growth in the labor forceIn thinking about prospects for economic growth, it is necessary to distinguish between the labor force and the larger population. Both are expected to grow at a relatively subdued pace; however, because of the aging of the population, the labor force is likely to grow even more slowly than the overall population.
Figure 1 shows that growth in the labor force has varied substantially over time and has often diverged from overall population growth. In the 1950s and 1960s, population (yellow line) grew more rapidly than the working-age population ages 15 to 64 (blue line) or the labor force (red line). In contrast, in the 1970s and 1980s, the labor force grew much more rapidly than the population as the baby boom generation reached working age and as female labor force participation rose. Those drivers of labor force growth largely subsided by the early 1990s. Since then, the labor force, working-age population, and overall population have all seen slower growth rates. Labor force participation fell sharply during the Great Recession, which held down labor force growth. But labor force growth has since rebounded to roughly the pace of the working-age population.
Slowing growth in working-age population and labor force
Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, Bureau of Economic Analysis,
Census Bureau, Congressional Budget Office (labor force projections).
Future labor force growth is likely to remain low for a couple of reasons. First, as shown in Figure 1, the population is now growing relatively slowly, and census projections expect that slow pace to continue. Second, these projections also suggest the working-age population will grow more slowly than the overall population, reflecting the aging of baby boomers. Of course, some of those older individuals will continue to work. Hence, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) projects the labor force will grow about ½% per year (red dashed line) over the next decade—a little faster than the working-age population, but substantially slower than in the second half of the 20th century. I use their estimate as a basis for my assumption that hours worked will also grow at about ½% per year so that hours per worker do not change much....MUCH MORE
Recent slow growth for productivityFigure 2 shows growth in GDP per hour since 1947 broken into periods to reflect variation in productivity growth. This measure of productivity growth was very fast from 1947 to 1973 but much slower from 1973 to 1995. It returned to a fast pace from 1995 to 2004, but has slowed again since 2004. During the fast-growth periods, productivity growth averaged 2½ to 2¾%. During the slower periods, growth was only 1 to 1¼% and dropped dramatically lower in 2010–2015 (Fernald 2016 discusses this period)....