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The Boston Globe



The mysterious shrinking workforce

FOR TEENAGE nerds growing up in the 1970s, the TV series “In Search of . . . ” was the pinnacle of entertainment. Investigating the world’s unsolved mysteries, the show featured waves of creepy music and narration by Leonard Nimoy — Mr. Spock of “Star Trek” fame. I was always intrigued by the mysteries that were right in front of us, such as the monolithic Easter Island statues or the Nazca lines on the plains of Peru. Despite decades of archaeological research and analysis, the explanations for these phenomena still came down to piles of conjecture and the lasting hope that some new piece of evidence would help unravel the riddle.

The phrase “declining labor participation” doesn’t generate the same electricity as “Loch Ness monster” or “curse of Tutankhamen,” but scratching the surface of the past year’s employment statistics reveals a mystery every bit deserving of Nimoy’s dramatic flair. It’s true that 169,000 new jobs were created in August, and that America’s unemployment rate fell to 7.3 percent. Unfortunately the primary factor behind that declining rate was the steady reduction in the number of people seeking work. Adult participation in the workforce has fallen to its lowest level in 35 years — and nobody knows why.

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