College degree boom and a changing labor market baseline

The March FOMC meeting minutes, released today, noted that increased education is changing the unemployment baseline:

A few participants warned against inferring too much from comparisons of the current low level of the unemployment rate with historical benchmarks, arguing that the much higher levels of education of today’s workforce—and the lower average unemployment rate of more highly educated workers than less educated workers—suggested that the U.S. economy might be able to sustain lower unemployment rates than was the case in the 1950s or 1960s.

It’s worth reiterating the Fed point with another labor market example. From the CPS, the median weekly earnings of women between the age of 25 and 54 increased steadily from 1997 to 2003 and again from 2014 to present.

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But women with a college degree in this age group did not see the more recent increase. Instead, their earnings are nearly $50 per week below the 2003 peak, after adjusting for inflation.

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The same wage series for those with less than a bachelor’s degree and those with advanced degrees also peak around 2003. The increase in education is what explains overall median wage growth. Because college educated workers earn more than workers without a college degree–and because so many more people have obtained college degrees compared to 2006–median wages for the entire group increase.

The increase in the share of this group with a college degree is so astounding that the population of 25-54 year old women without at least a bachelor’s degree has been falling rapidly since 2007.

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Recent overall wage growth is not driven by an unsustainable unemployment rate, but by families and individuals sacrificing time and money for a decreasing reward.

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