Why Aren’t U.S. Workers Working?

Source: Mary C. Daly, Joseph H. Pedtke, Nicolas Petrosky-Nadeau, and Annemarie Schweinert, Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, FRBSF Economic Letter, 2018-24, November 13, 2018

Labor force participation among U.S. men and women ages 25 to 54 has been declining for nearly 20 years, a stark contrast with rising participation in Canada over this period. Three-fourths of the difference between the two countries can be explained by the growing gap in labor force attachment of women. A key factor is the extensive parental leave policies in Canada. If the United States could reverse the trend in participation of prime-age women to match Canada, it would see 5 million additional prime-age workers join the labor force.

The decline in labor force participation of U.S. men and women ages 25 to 54 stands in stark contrast with other industrialized nations, where participation rates for prime-age workers have increased over time. In this Economic Letter, we show how labor force participation rates have diverged for men and women in the United States and Canada. We find that three-fourths of the difference in participation between the two countries can be explained by the growing gap in labor force attachment of women. We discuss how employment and social policies in Canada have made it easier for women to remain in the labor force while raising children. Our findings suggest that policy interventions to reduce the structural barriers that keep many women on the sidelines could bring millions of prime-age Americans into the labor force.