Labour force participation rates and working time: differentiated adjustments

By Bruno Ducoudré and Pierre Madec

In the course of the crisis, most European countries reduced actual working time to a greater or lesser extent by making use of partial unemployment schemes, the reduction of overtime or the use of time savings accounts, but also through the expansion of part-time work (particularly in Italy and Spain), including involuntary part-time work. In contrast, the favourable trend in US unemployment is explained in part by a significant fall in the participation rate.

Assuming that, for a given level of employment, a one-point increase in the participation rate (also called the “activity rate”) leads to a rise in the unemployment rate, it is possible to measure the impact of these adjustments (working time and participation rates) on unemployment, by calculating an unemployment rate at a constant employment level and controlling for these adjustments. In all the countries studied, the active population (employed + unemployed) increased by more than the general population, except in the United States, which was due in part to pension reforms. Mechanically, without job creation, demographic growth results in increasing the unemployment rate of the countries in question.

If the participation rate had remained at its 2007 level, the unemployment rate would be lower in France by 1.7 points, by 2.7 points in Italy and by 1.8 points in the United Kingdom (see figure). On the other hand, without the sharp contraction in the US labour force, the unemployment rate would have been more than 3 points higher than that observed in 2016. Germany has also experienced a significant decline in unemployment since the crisis (‑5.1 points) even though its participation rate increased by 2.2 points. Given the same participation rate, Germany’s unemployment rate would be… 1.2%. However, changes in participation rates are also the result of structural demographic factors, meaning that the hypothesis of a return to 2007 rates is arbitrary. For the United States, part of the decline in the participation rate can be explained by changes in the structure of the population. The underemployment rate might well also be overstated.

As for working time, the lessons seem very different. It thus seems that if working time had stayed at its pre-crisis level in all the countries, the unemployment rate would have been 3.9 points higher in Germany, 3.4 points higher in Italy and 0.8 point higher in France. In Spain, the United Kingdom and the United States, working time has not changed much since the crisis. By controlling for working time, the unemployment rate is therefore changing along the lines seen in these three countries.


It should not be forgotten that there is a tendency for working time to fall, which is reflected in developments observed during the crisis independently of the specific measures taken to cushion the impact on employment through mechanisms such as short-time working or the use of time savings accounts. Since the end of the 1990s, working time has fallen substantially in all the countries studied. In Germany, between 1998 and 2008, it fell by an average of 0.6% per quarter. In France, the switch to the 35-hour work week resulted in a similar decline over the period. In Italy, the United Kingdom and the United States, average working hours fell each quarter by -0.3%, -0.4% and -0.3%, respectively. In total, between 1998 and 2008, working time declined by 6% in Germany and France, 4% in Italy, 3% in the United Kingdom and the United States and 2% in Spain, which was de facto the only country that during the crisis intensified the decline in working time begun in the late 1990s.


Unemployment insurance for the euro zone?

By Xavier Timbeau

In the latest publication of France’s Treasury Department,  Lettre Trésor-Eco, no. 132, June 2014 (Ministère des Finances et des Comptes publics and Ministère de l’Économie du Redressement productif et du Numérique), Thomas Lellouch and Arthur Sode develop the operating methods and the merits of a common unemployment insurance for the euro zone. They specify the main steps of how it would be applied, which would ensure neutrality between the Member States. They argue for harmonized employment and labour market policies, leading in the long term to a single contribution rate in the euro zone:

– “Harmonization at the euro zone level of an unemployment insurance component would provide the euro zone a new solidarity instrument capable of giving a social Europe real substance while ensuring greater stability of the zone as a whole…

– This common base could compensate e.g. those who are unemployed less than one year (the most cyclical component) at 50% of their past salary, with financing determined on a harmonized base (e.g. payroll). It would be supplemented by national compensation in accordance with the preferences of each state, thus ensuring the continuation of the current level of compensation…

– Modulating the contribution rate of each member according to its unemployment level, with regular updates based on past trends, would ensure ex ante budget neutrality between the Member States…

– In the longer term, and after the unemployment rates of the various Member States converge, a system marking greater solidarity between the Member States could be considered, with financing through a single contribution rate …”.

New solidarity, but posing three problems …

Unemployment insurance functions as an important automatic stabilizer. Having a common system for the euro zone members would have made possible significant transfers during the crisis we have just been through. Based on the scheme proposed by the authors (pooling the most cyclical component), Spain could have benefited from almost 35 billion euros by end 2012, mainly from Germany and France. This would not be sufficient to cancel Spain’s public deficit, but it would have kept down its level.

A system like this could play a major role in avoiding the sovereign debt crises that dry up a State’s credit. It would introduce solidarity and neutral transfers during cycles, but would be responsive to the state of the cycle.

However, this proposal raises three problems: the first is that unemployment insurance systems are the fruit of a national social compromise that has won general acceptance and is consistent with the rest of the country’s labour market policies, whether these are active policies or not. A European unemployment insurance component built on top of national systems could lead to confusion and to questions about the national balance. This could disrupt the social dialogue, since the social partners would have a potential resource for which they are not responsible, in addition to the issue of whether the European authorities or partner countries might also wish to have a say. Furthermore, unemployment insurance is often a sensitive subject, as was seen by the issue of entertainers and artists (intermittents) in France in early summer 2014.

This could be solved by limiting the sharing to macroeconomic transfers, independent of national arrangements. But, and this is the second problem, to ensure that transfers between states do not become permanent, the transfers need to be balanced over the business cycle. This requires a procedure for identification of the cycle that the stakeholders agree on. The recent experiences of the crisis and the calculation of structural deficits show that this is far from the case today. Another option would be to “replenish” the system prior to using it by accumulating contributions over a number of years before a major downturn. It would suffice to limit use to what has been accumulated to resolve discrepancies. But then the system would be bereft of value in the face of a systemic crisis. The day the buffer collapses, the Kings would be as naked as before. At best the crisis is delayed, at worst it is aggravated.

A final option would be to give up balancing the transfers a priori (or by the mechanics of the way it operates), leaving it to polarize gradually one way or another and to ensure an asymptotic convergence. But in this case the system could lead to undesired structural transfers that could very well call it into question.

Spain for instance has high unemployment, well above its structural rate; entering into a transfer system based on the differences between current unemployment and structural unemployment could be done only on an equilibrium basis, or would run the risk of a long-lasting initial transfer.

This then raises the third issue, governance. It is difficult to design such a system without implying, at least potentially, significant transfers between States. How could such transfers be justified without a legitimate common representation? Furthermore, what could be done to avoid these transfers becoming an instrument for control of macroeconomic policy as a whole? The establishment of a banking union is a reminder of how key this problem is. Likewise, Spain’s refusal to submit to the conditions set for a conventional assistance program (EU / IMF) clearly indicates that in the absence of legitimate and sincere solidarity, the beneficiaries of transfers will be as suspicious as the payers.

What’s masked by the fall in US unemployment rates

By Christine Rifflart

Despite the further decline in the US unemployment rate in December, data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics released last week confirms paradoxically that the American labour market is in poor health. The US unemployment rate fell by 0.3 percentage point from November (-1.2 points from December 2012) to end the year at 6.7%. The rate has fallen 3.3 percentage points from a record high in October 2009, and is coming closer and closer to the non-accelerating inflation rate of unemployment (NAIRU), which since 2010 has been set by the OECD at 6.1%. However, these results do not at all reflect a rebound in employment, but instead mask a further deterioration in the economic situation.

While the unemployment rate is the standard indicator for summarizing how tight a labour market is, this can also be considered using two other indicators, i.e. the employment rate and the labour force participation rate – in the US case, these give a different view of the state of the labour market (see chart).


After falling nearly 5 percentage points in 2008 and 2009, the employment rate has been constant for 4 years, at the level of the early 1980s (58.6%, following a peak of 63.4% at end 2006). Since then, the decline in the unemployment rate has reflected the decline in the participation rate, a trend that is confirmed by the figures for December. Over the period 2010-2013, the participation rate lost a little more than 2 percentage points, to wind up at end December at its lowest level since 1978 (62.8%, following a peak of 66.4% at end 2006).

This poor performance is due to insufficient job creation, which has a threefold impact. Despite positive GDP growth – which contrasts with the recession in the euro zone – demand is far from sufficient to reassure business and revitalize the labour market. After four years of recovery, at end 2013 employment has still not returned to its pre-crisis level. Net creation of salaried jobs in the private sector has not even been sufficient to absorb the demographic increase in the working age population. As a result, the employment rate is not improving from where it bottomed out.

Moreover, the difficulty in finding employment is encouraging the exit or delaying the entry or return of people who are old enough to participate in the labour market. This effect, familiar to economists, is called effet de flexion (“bending effect”) in French: young people are encouraged to study longer, women stay at home after raising their children, and unemployed people become discouraged and stop looking for work. Despite the resumption of economic growth and job creation, this effect continued to be felt in full in 2013. While the reduction in the participation rate slowed in 2011 and 2012 – the growth of the labour force was once more positive but remained lower than that of the working-age population – it accelerated in 2013 with the decline in the labour force. During the second half of 2013, 885,000 people were in effect diverted away from the labour market, due in particular to the more difficult economic and social conditions.

Companies seem reluctant to rehire in the particularly difficult economic context. The fiscal shock in early 2013 depressed activity: GDP growth fell from 2.8% in 2012 to an expected level of about 1.8% in 2013. There will be additional fiscal adjustments in 2014. Beyond drastic cuts (related to sequestration [1]) in state spending, some exceptional measures that have been in force since 2008-2009 for the poorest households and the long-term unemployed (3.9 million out of the 10.4 million unemployed) are coming to an end and have not been renewed. According to estimates by the Centre on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP), 1.3 million unemployed who have exhausted their entitlement to basic benefits (26 weeks) and who have enjoyed an exceptional extension will find themselves without support as of 1 January 2014 due to the non- renewal of the measure, and nearly 5 million unemployed will be affected by the end of the year.

There is a risk of growing numbers of people falling into poverty in this situation. According to the Census Bureau, since 2010 the poverty rate has been about 15%. However, again according to the CBPP, unemployment benefits would have prevented 1.7 million people from falling below the poverty line. The greater difficulties facing the long-term unemployed and the withdrawal of part of the population from the labour market are the direct result of a morose labour market, which is not indicative of a continuous decline in the unemployment rate.


[1] See America’s fiscal headache written 9 December 2013.