The U.S. Is Not 'Too Empty' or 'In Dire Need of New Faces', as the N.Y. Times Puts It

By David North on April 12, 2019

Part of the usually on-target "The Upshot" team at the New York Times wrote a long piece about the "decline of the work force" and the supposedly related "dire need" for more immigrants. Appearing on the front page of the April 10 print edition, it was titled "A 'Full' Nation In Dire Need Of New Faces" and was written by Neil Irwin and Emily Badger.

Yes, America is getting a little older; and, yes, birth rates have fallen; and, yes, happily, the published unemployment rate is down, but the whole thrust of the article was a sensed need for more immigrants to fill those empty jobs.

It was if there were no other ways of expanding the work force without adding to our already high rates of legal and illegal immigration. And, from their cozy perch on Manhattan's West Side, there was no indication that the writers sensed that there are huge benefits for the powerless in tighter labor markets.

In a truly tight labor market, all sorts of good things happen, as we learned in World War II: African-Americans suddenly get jobs previously denied to them, as do women; the disabled seem to be a little more employable than they used to appear, and retirements are postponed.

Further, there was no indication in their article that the "worker shortages" seen by Irwin and Badger relate to the broader and more accurate concept of "worker shortages at wages that employers currently will pay".

Finally, it is much easier for employers to pick and choose from a swollen work force than to raise wages, drop old prejudices, and change employment practices, so the bosses complain about worker shortages, as if the situation were beyond their control.

Before we open the gates even wider to international immigration — we admit more than 1.1 million legally each year — society should think about these moves, all of which would be helpful in the long run to the current residents of this country, generally our fellow citizens:

  • Raise wages where there appear to be worker shortages;
  • Raise the age at which Social Security benefits become available;
  • Be more receptive to jobs for the disabled, women, and minorities;
  • Extend the length of time that the average person works; and
  • Lower the size of the prison population.

On the fourth point, as my colleague Steve Camarota has pointed out repeatedly, labor force participation (LFP) rates among Americans have not risen to pre-2007 recession levels.

He reports that only 70.7 percent of native-born Americans, aged 18 to 64 with less than a college degree were in the labor force in the fourth quarter of 2018. Raise that percentage to, say, 73.5 percent and millions of additional workers would be available.

One of the ways to encourage a greater LFP rate would be to simply create the incentives to cause each worker to work more years. As I read obituaries in my college alumni publication, I often see this general pattern: graduate at 22, retire at 65, then die at 88. Let's assume that one year was spent working — primarily summers — before graduation, and that there was no work after 65.

This means one year of work before 22, and 43 years afterward for a total of 44 years.

This means 21 years of non-work before graduation and 23 years of retirement, also 44 years.

Suppose we could gently expand the time working, adding more part-time work for the young, so that comes to two years before graduation, and more full-time and part-time work for the aging, totaling, say, three years after age 65. (More teenagers should be encouraged to have part-time jobs; in my neighborhood, lawns are mowed and newspapers are delivered by migrants, jobs that 40 years ago were set aside for high school and college kids.)

This would increase the totals to 48 years of work and 40 years of non-work, would add close to 10 percent to an individual's work life, and would cause close to a 10 percent increase in the size of the U.S. work force; a fraction of that increase would fill many millions of jobs, even if we did nothing to increase the LFP rates of minorities and the disabled, and did nothing to decrease the prison population (mostly working-age males) below the current level of 2.2 million.

Increasing the retirement age from an assumed 65 to the proposed 68 would be done far more easily among white collar and service workers than it would among manual laborers, and special arrangements might be called for regarding the latter. But even a minor upward change in retirement age would create millions more workers, all legally present, all well qualified for the jobs that they would fill, and all familiar with demands of the American labor market.

Some, of course, would object to working to, say, 68, but I have, admittedly, a rather specialized view on the subject:

I work full-time at 90.