The jobs figures for February are out, and you’ll hear a lot about how this is the longest uninterrupted stretch of job creation in at least 70 years. You might hear less about how this is also one of the weakest stretches of job creation during that same time.
Since the end of World War II, according to federal data, there have been 15 periods of uninterrupted job growth lasting more than one year. The current period ranks 11th out of those 15. Nine of those periods lasted at least 24 months; the current period ranks eighth out of those nine.
What’s stunning about these low rankings is that the numbers aren’t adjusted for population. The average monthly job creation in the current period, which dates back to October 2010, is 203,000. Compare that to, for example, the average of 232,000 between November 1964 and March 1967 — when there were about 121 million fewer people living in the United States. Or compare today’s average to the 205,000 average between August 1972 and July 1974: The average monthly figure was virtually the same as now, but the country had about 108 million fewer people. In fact, the only period of sustained but smaller job growth that can’t be explained by population differences was during George W. Bush’s presidency. So things during Barack Obama’s presidency haven’t been as bad as then, just worse than most other expansions.
Looking at the numbers this way helps explain a few things. First and foremost, it helps explain why wages are so stagnant even though hiring has been steady. “Steady” isn’t the same thing as “strong,” and the economy needs much stronger job growth if it’s to put upward pressure on wages. That simply isn’t happening.
Politically speaking, it explains why the candidates for president — including Bernie Sanders on the Democratic side — speak in such urgent terms about the economy. While the Obama administration and its apologists pump sunshine about the long streak of job growth, everyone else sees it for what it is: a trend line that’s long but far too shallow. Even Hillary Clinton, who more than anyone else in the race is running as the candidate of continuity with the current administration, talks about the need to strengthen growth and “move toward a full-employment economy.” As in, we aren’t in a “full-employment economy” now, despite more than five straight years of job growth. Much of the anger that Donald Trump and Sanders, in particular, have tapped into stems from the so-so economy we’ve seen not just for seven years but for 15 years.
Below are a couple of graphs to help illustrate how mediocre this “historic” job-growth streak really is.
Here are the raw numbers, not adjusted for population:
This graph is adjusted for population by using the annual average for the years in question. Note that these are not weighted and are purely for illustrative purposes: