Demographic Dilemma: Slowing Population Growth, Not Pandemic, At The Root Of U.S. Worker Shortage
Ability To Meet Current, Future Demand Challenged; Problem Magnified In California Due To Housing Scarcity
Supply chain struggles have been widely blamed for the inability to meet consumer and business demand throughout the pandemic. While fixing the supply chain should be a top priority, it is worker scarcity, driven by the lack of basic, long-term population growth that is the true underlying cause—and a critical future challenge for the economies of the United States, and particularly California, according to a new analysis released today by the UCR School of Business Center for Economic Forecasting and Development.
“For several decades there has been a substantial slowdown in the growth of Americans in their prime working years,” said Christopher Thornberg, Director of the Center for Economic Forecasting and the report’s author. “Whether it’s the missing factory worker, delivery truck driver, or salesclerk, the scarcity of workers is hindering the ability to connect demand to supply and is slowing economic growth.”
According to the analysis, long-run population growth of people between the ages of 25 and 54 accelerated dramatically in the U.S. in the 1970s, peaked in the mid 1980s at over 2% growth per year, and then collapsed just as fast, driven by sharp declines in birthrates. International migration into the United States jumped in the 1990s, offsetting some of this baby bust, but that too slowed sharply after the turn of the century. Today, the population growth rate of prime working age people in the nation is 0.2%, one-tenth of what it was 40 years ago.
Thornberg notes that these population trends have been observed in the data for many years, but because it’s the kind of thing that happens gradually, the issue simply hasn’t been a primary focus for policymakers or business leaders.
The mass wave of retirements that occurred during the pandemic both accelerated and exacerbated today’s worker shortage, but it is not the root cause. “This is a long-term demographic problem, not a short-term cyclical one,” said Thornberg. “It is not going to disappear as the COVID crisis fades.”
As bad as the labor shortage is nationally, it is worse in California, especially Southern California, according to the analysis. The state’s lack of housing acts as a functional cap on population and labor force growth, degrading affordability and driving workers and businesses to other locations. Moreover, the state’s demographic forecasts do not paint an optimistic outlook for future trends.
According to the analysis, all of this means government agencies and policymakers need to concentrate on increasing labor supply and helping employers adapt to a new world where workers are a scarce resource. In the immediate term, there is a relatively passive way leaders can help: they can relax labor market regulations to allow employers maximum flexibility in how they hire their workforce.
Specifically, the analysis calls out the following:
- Restrictions on gig work and flexible work schedules should be reduced, not heightened as California is currently doing.
- Older employees who wish to remain active in the labor market should be encouraged and supported by reducing or eliminating potential reductions to existing retirement benefits.
- Regulation should shift to allow employers to offer a variety of wage/benefit/training packages depending on worker desires rather than being based on preset publicly mandated minimums.
- Policymakers should relax licensing requirements and staffing rules.
In the longer-term, elected and regulatory officials can make a difference in numerous ways:
- At the national level, Congress can address broken immigration policies and work to allow more people to legally move to the United States.
- State and local leaders in California can expand housing supply, particularly multifamily housing, to slow out-migration.
- Policymakers can increase earned income tax credits to support workers in moving off public assistance into lower-wage, lower-skill jobs.
- Government leaders can subsidize employer-based worker training programs to allow and encourage lower-skilled workers to enter higher skilled career paths.
- Policymakers can invest in Pre-K education and publicly subsidized childcare facilities to help workers (particularly women) remain on their chosen career path as they build families.
- Government can provide grants and training to assist small businesses in adopting labor saving technology.
View the report, The Big Shortage: California’s Worker Scarcity and Economic Growth, here.
Slow Growth Forecasted for California’s Major Metros…But No Recession; Consumer Spending Expected to Keep Local Economies Humming
Modest Price Declines Expected In State’s Famously Expensive Housing Markets
California’s major metropolitan regions will weather any national headwinds caused by the recent banking crisis and are all expected to see employment grow and consumer spending continue for the rest of the year, according to new regional outlooks released today by Beacon Economics. Almost without exception, consumer and business sales tax receipts have grown significantly compared to pre-pandemic levels in the state’s largest urban areas.
“We expect consumer and business spending to carry the day in the near term for these local economies,” said Taner Osman, Research Manager at Beacon Economics and one of the outlook authors. “Despite bearish headlines about bank runs and tech industry layoffs, spending continues to trend above pre-pandemic levels in California’s metro areas.”
Since the 1st quarter of 2020, sales tax receipts have jumped in San Diego (+32.3%), the South Bay (+29% in San Benito County, +17.6% in Santa Clara County), the East Bay (+26.1% in Alameda County, 23.6% in Contra Costa County), and Los Angeles (+25.1%). Statewide, receipts have increased nearly 30%. Only San Francisco has seen a decline (-1.5%) in its business and consumer spending, albeit a minimal one. The new outlooks note that the fall off in San Francisco aligns with weak tourism and air travel data, which indicate that passenger counts through San Francisco International are down nearly 30% from pre-pandemic levels.
The ongoing spending spree across the state’s metros is being driven and bolstered by steady gains in payrolls, according to the new outlook. Indeed, in each of the five regions analyzed, the local unemployment rate has fallen back to a low pre-pandemic level and employment is inching towards an all-time high. Moreover, the forecast has job growth increasing by between 1% and 2.5% in all five metros throughout the remainder of 2023. “Overall, we’re expecting to see slow but steady employment growth across the state’s metros this year… and no recession,” said Osman.
In other findings, the new outlooks are forecasting only modest price declines in the housing markets of California’s major metropolitan areas over the rest of this year. While rising interest rates have taken a toll on the local markets, making mortgages more expensive and sidelining would-be homeowners, there has been little relief in terms of badly needed housing production. “The extremely limited inventory of homes for sale restricts how much prices will fall, with some areas only seeing a deceleration in price growth, not actual drops,” said Osman.
As of February 2023, on an annual basis, only in exorbitantly high-priced San Francisco did the median home price fall markedly, by 10.7%. In the other Bay Area metros, price decreases were more moderate, including a 3.5% decrease in the East Bay and a 0.3% and 5% decrease in the two counties of the South Bay. In Los Angeles and San Diego, price growth decelerated but prices continued to rise year-over-year (+1.8% in San Diego, +0.8% in Los Angeles).
This edition of The Regional Outlook was authored by Osman and Senior Research Associate Justin Niakamal.
View full outlooks for the East Bay, Los Angeles, San Diego, San Francisco, and South Bay.
Banking & Financial Services
All Eyes On The Fed… But Will It Change The US Forecast?
Federal Reserve Policies At The Root Of Recent Bank Collapses; California: A Better Recovery Than We Thought!
The recession forecasted by so many still hasn’t shown up and is looking less and less likely to anytime soon, according to Beacon Economics‘ latest outlook for the United States and California. Moreover, the recent bank failures that have been capturing headlines are being ‘wrongly viewed’ as heralding a coming downturn, something that misses the actual drivers behind the collapses and that key economic data refutes.
“These bank failures are not a reflection of an unhealthy U.S. economy, they are all about Federal Reserve policy,” said Christopher Thornberg, Founding Partner of Beacon Economics and one of the forecast authors. “Sad by true; the body that is supposed to be the wise shepherd of the nation’s banking system is largely responsible for creating the very stressors that caused Silicon Valley Bank to fail, and the run on others to begin.”
According to the outlook, the U.S. banking system, overall, is the victim of quixotic and rapid changes in Fed policy over the last three years as they have tried to maintain both full employment and price stability – which can be mutually exclusive. “In their existential panic over full employment during the pandemic, the Fed destabilized prices by injecting historic amounts of cash into the economy; in their existential panic over price instability, they destabilized the banking system through interest rate increases,” said Thornberg.
The new outlook acknowledges that the sudden crosscurrents from the bank failures have made the forecast fuzzier because stress in the banking system will eventually show up in the broader economy in the form of tightening credit. However, the new forecast does not believe those stressors, on their own, will rise to the level of a recession. “Cash is still king in the U.S. economy,” said Thornberg. “But if the Fed decides to continue raising interest rates in its quest to slow inflation, it will do more damage to the bank credit industry and that will trigger negative consequences for the overall economy.”
Assuming the Fed slows their roll, which they’ve shown some signs of doing, Beacon Economics is expecting slow growth and no recession in the near-term future. The forecast has real U.S. GDP growth in the first quarter coming in between 1% and 2%, although the margin of error has increased given the policy uncertainty.
In terms of the macro economy, the new outlook points to copious evidence of its health: unemployment in the nation remains rock bottom, consumer spending continues despite inflation, earnings growth is still running above 6% for the median worker, U.S. household net worth remains 30% ($30 trillion) higher than it was pre-pandemic, banks are not experiencing an increase in problem loans, and interest rates have started to stabilize causing asset markets to do the same.
In California, the news grew rosier this month after the state released its annual employment revisions, although a declining workforce continues to hamper economic growth. The revision shows that California recovered more and faster from the pandemic’s job losses than previously estimated: There are 197,000 more people employed in the state today than there were pre-pandemic. The original estimates had the gain at a mere 70,000.
However, in terms of the percentage increase, California’s job growth has been about five times slower than states such as Florida and Texas. “The underperformance we’ve seen is certainly not due to any unwillingness on the part of the state’s employers to hire workers,” said Taner Osman, Research Manager at Beacon Economics and one of the forecast authors. “Rather, California’s labor force contracted during the pandemic and there are well over 300,000 fewer workers in the state today than there were before COVID hit; there are simply not enough workers to fill the number of job openings.”
Deeply linked to its declining workforce is California’s famously expensive housing market, where prices surged an astounding 41% during the early days of the pandemic. Today, higher interest rates have led to a collapse in demand and home sales have returned to their pre-pandemic trough. However, home prices remain 27% above where they were pre-pandemic and the new forecast only expects them to fall by 6.3% in 2023. “Given California’s acute long-term housing shortage, it’s not surprising that price drops will be limited,” said Osman. “And this isn’t anything like the Great Recession because consumer balance sheets are so much stronger today and unemployment rates are at all-time lows.”
Career & Workplace
Annual Employment Revision Changes Our Understanding of California’s Recovery From the Pandemic
State Recovery Has NOT Lagged The Nation; California Recovered More And Faster Than Originally Estimated
The annual benchmark revision released today by the California EDD has significantly changed our understanding of California’s recovery from the pandemic, according to an analysis by Beacon Economics. While employment figures from 2022 were revised downwards, 2021’s figures were revised upwards, and in total, the state added far more jobs than originally estimated.
“The revisions have painted a rosier picture of California’s labor market recovery than previous estimates suggested,” said Taner Osman, Research Manager at Beacon Economics. “Importantly, given the contraction in the state’s labor force since the start of the pandemic, the job growth that has occurred is partly due to an expansion in labor force participation.”
Overall, employment growth in the state from December 2021 to December 2022 was revised from 3.6% down to 3.1%, while growth from December 2020 to December 2021 was revised from 6.5% up to 7.7%.
Previous estimates suggested that California had only added 70,000 jobs compared to its pre-pandemic level, while the revisions reveal the state has actually added 197,000 jobs. This means that payrolls as of December 2022 are 1.1% above their pre-pandemic peak, compared to the 0.4% originally estimated. While previous estimates showed the recovery in California as lagging the nation overall, today’s revisions reveal that the state has recovered at roughly the same pace.
The revisions also mean that California recovered the nearly 2.8 million jobs it lost due to the pandemic in June 2022, rather than October 2022, as originally estimated.
Growth in the state’s 2022 labor force was also revised downwards significantly. From December 2021 to December 2022, only 128,700 workers joined the labor force in California, far fewer than the 276,800 originally estimated. This translates into a 2022 labor force growth rate of 0.7% rather than the original estimate of 1.5%. However, at the same time, 2021’s labor force growth rate (from December 2020 to December 2021) was revised from 1.5% up to 2.2%.
At the industry level, the annual benchmark revision was mixed, with growth rates in some sectors were revised upwards, while others were revised downwards. The biggest upward revisions to year-over-year growth rates (December 2021 to December 2022) were in Mining and Logging (revised from 0% to 3.6%), Real Estate (revised from 2.8% to 3.2%), Health Care (revised from 4.7% to 5.0%), and Professional, Scientific, and Technical Services (revised from 4.1% to 4.2%).
The biggest downward revisions in year-over-year growth rates were in Finance and Insurance (revised from 1.0% to -0.9%), Construction (revised from 4.6% to 2.7%), Government (revised from 1.8% to 0.4%), Transportation, Warehousing, and Utilities (revised from 3.8% to 2.9%), Wholesale Trade (revised from 2.2% to 1.3%), Education (revised from 7.0% to 6.4%), Retail Trade (revised from 0.8% to 0.2%), and Leisure and Hospitality (revised from 7.7% to 7.2%).
California’s annual benchmark revision was also mixed at the regional level, with growth rates revised up in some areas and down in others. The largest upward revisions in year-over-year growth rates were in Yuba (revised from -0.6% to 4.1%), Napa (revised from 1.8% to 5.8%), El Centro (revised from 1.8% to 4.9%), Madera (revised from 2.4 to 4.6%), San Rafael (MD) (revised from -1.0% to 1.1%), and Modesto (revised from 0.9% to 3.1%). Downward revisions occurred in Santa Barbara (revised from 4.0% to 1.0%), the Inland Empire (revised from 4.9% to 2.7%), Ventura (revised from 4.1% to 1.9%), Merced (revised from 3.3% to 1.7%), San Francisco (MD) (revised from 5.3% to 3.8%), and Chico (revised from 2.6% to 1.6%).
California’s labor market expanded in January, with total nonfarm employment in the state growing by 96,700 positions over the month. “Despite all the headline gloom about the state of the economy at present, California’s economy added more jobs in January than it has in any month since February 2021,” said Osman.
As of January 2023, California has recovered all of the jobs that were lost in March and April 2020, and there are now 293,900 more people employed in the state compared to February 2020. Total nonfarm employment has grown 1.7% over this time compared to a 1.8% increase nationally. California also increased payrolls by 3.5% from January 2022 to January 2023, outpacing the 3.3% increase nationally over the same period.
California’s unemployment rate increased by 0.1 percentage point, to 4.2% in January 2023. While this rate is near historic lows, it remains elevated relative to the 3.4% unemployment rate in the United States overall. California is continuing to struggle with its lack of labor supply, although the workforce did grow by 44,700 in January. Since February 2020, the state’s labor force has fallen by 283,600 workers, a 1.4% decline.
- While employment levels in nearly half of the sectors in California now exceed their pre-pandemic peaks, employment levels in the hardest hit sectors remain below their pre-pandemic levels.
- The Government sector led gains in January, with payrolls expanding by 46,000. However, Government payrolls are still 2.3% below their pre-pandemic peak.
- Other sectors posting strong gains during the month were Leisure and Hospitality (20,800), Retail Trade (10,200), Health Care (9,600), Professional, Scientific, and Technical Services (9,400), Transportation, Warehousing, and Utilities (6,700), and Wholesale Trade (3,000).
- Payrolls decreased in a handful of sectors in January. Construction posted the largest decline, where payrolls fell by 7,300. However, the decline in Construction payrolls was largely weather related. Other sectors with significant job losses were Information (-5,000), Real Estate (-4,600), and Administrative Support (-700).
- Regionally, job gains were led by Southern California. Los Angeles (MD) experienced the largest increase, where payrolls grew by 37,300 (0.8%) during the month. San Diego (8,700 or 0.6%), Orange County (5,300 or 0.3%), and the Inland Empire (5,300 or 0.3%) also saw their payrolls jump during the month. Over the past year, El Centro (4.4%) saw the fastest job growth in the region, followed by San Diego (4.2%), Orange County (3.5%), Los Angeles (MD) (3.4%), the Inland Empire (2.8%), and Ventura (1.6%).
- In the Bay Area, the San Francisco (MD) experienced the largest increase, with payrolls expanding by 8,900 (0.7%) positions in January. The East Bay (7,900 or 0.7%), San Jose (5,100 or 0.4%), Santa Rosa (1,100 or 0.5%), Napa (300 or 0.4%), and Vallejo (100 or 0.1%) also saw payrolls expand during the month. Over the past 12 months, Napa (5.5%) saw the fastest job growth in the region, followed by San Francisco (MD) (4.3%), San Jose (4.2%), Santa Rosa (3.6%), Vallejo (2.5%), and the East Bay (2.1%).
- In the Central Valley, Sacramento experienced the largest monthly increase as payrolls expanded by 3,900 (0.4%) positions in January. Payrolls in Merced (1,000 or 1.4%), Chico (500 or 0.6%), Fresno (500 or 0.1%), Modesto (500 or 0.3%), Stockton (400 or 0.1%), and Madera (200 or 0.5%) increased as well. Over the past year, Madera (4.5%) saw the fastest growth, followed by Yuba (4.3%), Hanford (4.2%), Fresno (4.0%), Visalia (3.6%), Stockton (3.4%), and Sacramento (3.0%).
- On California’s Central Coast, Santa Barbara added the largest number of jobs, with payrolls increasing by 2,200 (1.1%) during the month. Salinas (900 or 0.6%) and Santa Cruz (600 or 0.6%) saw payrolls decline during the month. From January 2022 to January 2023, San Luis Obispo (3.1%) added jobs at the fastest rate, followed by Santa Cruz (2.9%), Salinas (2.5%), and Santa Barbara (2.3%).
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