What to Watch on Jobs Day: Looking Back on 2014

As we await the last jobs report for 2014, it’s useful to step back and look at the December report in the context of the entire year—and in the context of the recovery as a whole. If December’s numbers come in as expected, we will see a relatively strong labor market in 2014, compared to the economy in the Great Recession and the beginning of the recovery.

Arguably, the real recovery did not even begin until 2014. Job growth was considerably stronger in 2014 than in previous years, and the unemployment rate, along with the long-term unemployment rate, measurably declined. Meanwhile, the employment-to-population ratio of prime age workers (25-54 years old) increased, and the rate of involuntarily part-time workers declined while those voluntarily working part-time increased. These are all pieces of good news. I expect these trends to continue in the right direction in December, or at least remain stable.

The one indicator that hasn’t improved over the year—and one we don’t expect to change in the December report—is nominal wages. Nominal wage growth has been consistently below target over the last five years, and last year was no exception. EPI has been tracking nominal wages, and it’s clear that the cumulative cost to slow wage growth is mounting. Indeed, nominal wages will be the key indicator to watch in 2015. As the labor market continues to improve, more people will find employment and the rolls of missing workers (those who have been sidelined in the weak economy) should shrink. As workers return to the labor force and get jobs, the unemployment rate will better reflect the state of the labor market. Eventually, a healthier labor market should translate into decent wage growth. The question is, when will workers start seeing the decent economic news reflected in their paychecks?

Moreover, as my colleague Josh Bivens has written, it’s important that the good economic news doesn’t prompt the Federal Reserve to raise interest rates any time soon. Many analysts and prognosticators worry that falling unemployment will cause wages to rise significantly, pushing up inflation above the Fed’s 2 percent target. But with wage growth continuing to be sluggish, there’s no reason to worry about runaway inflation. And putting the brakes on the economy too soon could have a disastrous impact.

Check back tomorrow when we’ll reflect on the 2014 labor market, including jobs, unemployment, and wages. We’ll update our missing workers calculator, assess the jobs gap, and analyze nominal wage growth in the context of Federal Reserve policy.