What Is the New Normal for U.S. Growth?

Economic growth during the recovery has been slower on average than its trend from before the Great Recession, prompting policymakers to ask if there is a “new normal” for U.S. GDP growth.

This Economic Letter argues that the new normal pace for GDP growth, in real (inflation-adjusted) terms, might plausibly fall in the range of 1½ to 1¾%. This estimate is based on trends in demographics, education, and productivity. The aging and retirement of the baby boom generation is expected to hold down employment growth relative to population growth. Further, educational attainment has plateaued, reducing the contribution of labor quality to productivity growth. The slower forecast for overall GDP growth assumes that, apart from these effects, productivity growth is relatively normal, if modest—in line with its pace for most of the period since 1973.

Subdued growth in the labor force

In thinking about prospects for economic growth, it is necessary to distinguish between the labor force and the larger population. Both are expected to grow at a relatively subdued pace; however, because of the aging of the population, the labor force is likely to grow even more slowly than the overall population.

Figure 1 shows that growth in the labor force has varied substantially over time and has often diverged from overall population growth. In the 1950s and 1960s, population (yellow line) grew more rapidly than the working-age population ages 15 to 64 (blue line) or the labor force (red line). In contrast, in the 1970s and 1980s, the labor force grew much more rapidly than the population as the baby boom generation reached working age and as female labor force participation rose. Those drivers of labor force growth largely subsided by the early 1990s. Since then, the labor force, working-age population, and overall population have all seen slower growth rates. Labor force participation fell sharply during the Great Recession, which held down labor force growth. But labor force growth has since rebounded to roughly the pace of the working-age population.

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