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Productivity Shifts and the Natural Rate of Unemployment

Productivity Shifts and the Natural Rate of Unemployment

Unexpected shifts in productivity can have a powerful effect on the natural rate of unemployment. Over time, the level of wages in an economy will be determined by the productivity of workers. After all, if a business paid workers more than could be justified by their productivity, the business will ultimately lose money and go bankrupt. Conversely, if a business tries to pay workers less than their productivity then, in a competitive labor market, other businesses will find it worthwhile to hire away those workers and pay them more.

However, adjustments of wages to productivity levels will not happen quickly or smoothly. Wages are typically reviewed only once or twice a year. In many modern jobs, it is difficult to measure productivity at the individual level. For example, how precisely would one measure the quantity produced by an accountant who is one of many people working in the tax department of a large corporation? Because productivity is difficult to observe, wage increases are often determined based on recent experience with productivity; if productivity has been rising at, say, 2% per year, then wages rise at that level as well. However, when productivity changes unexpectedly, it can affect the natural rate of unemployment for a time.

The U.S. economy in the 1970s and 1990s provides two vivid examples of this process. In the 1970s, productivity growth slowed down unexpectedly (as discussed in Economic Growth). For example, output per hour of U.S. workers in the business sector increased at an annual rate of 3.3% per year from 1960 to 1973, but only 0.8% from 1973 to 1982. figure (a) illustrates the situation where the demand for labor—that is, the quantity of labor that business is willing to hire at any given wage—has been shifting out a little each year because of rising productivity, from D0 to D1 to D2. As a result, equilibrium wages have been rising each year from W0 to W1 to W2. But when productivity unexpectedly slows down, the pattern of wage increases does not adjust right away. Wages keep rising each year from W2 to W3 to W4. But the demand for labor is no longer shifting up. A gap opens where the quantity of labor supplied at wage level W4 is greater than the quantity demanded. The natural rate of unemployment rises; indeed, in the aftermath of this unexpectedly low productivity in the 1970s, the national unemployment rate did not fall below 7% from May, 1980 until 1986. Over time, the rise in wages will adjust to match the slower gains in productivity, and the unemployment rate will ease back down. But this process may take years.

Unexpected Productivity Changes and Unemployment

The two graphs reveal how changes in productivity can impact wages and unemployment

(a) Productivity is rising, increasing the demand for labor. Employers and workers become used to the pattern of wage increases. Then productivity suddenly stops increasing. However, the expectations of employers and workers for wage increases do not shift immediately, so wages keep rising as before. But the demand for labor has not increased, so at wage W4, unemployment exists where the quantity supplied of labor exceeds the quantity demanded. (b) The rate of productivity increase has been zero for a time, so employers and workers have come to accept the equilibrium wage level (W). Then productivity increases unexpectedly, shifting demand for labor from D0 to D1. At the wage (W), this means that the quantity demanded of labor exceeds the quantity supplied, and with job offers plentiful, the unemployment rate will be low.

The late 1990s provide an opposite example: instead of the surprise decline in productivity in the 1970s, productivity unexpectedly rose in the mid-1990s. The annual growth rate of real output per hour of labor increased from 1.7% from 1980–1995, to an annual rate of 2.6% from 1995–2001. Let’s simplify the situation a bit, so that the economic lesson of the story is easier to see graphically, and say that productivity had not been increasing at all in earlier years, so the intersection of the labor market was at point E in figure (b), where the demand curve for labor (D0) intersects the supply curve for labor. As a result, real wages were not increasing. Now, productivity jumps upward, which shifts the demand for labor out to the right, from D0 to D1. At least for a time, however, wages are still being set according to the earlier expectations of no productivity growth, so wages do not rise. The result is that at the prevailing wage level (W), the quantity of labor demanded (Qd) will for a time exceed the quantity of labor supplied (Qs), and unemployment will be very low—actually below the natural level of unemployment for a time. This pattern of unexpectedly high productivity helps to explain why the unemployment rate stayed below 4.5%—quite a low level by historical standards—from 1998 until after the U.S. economy had entered a recession in 2001.

Average levels of unemployment will tend to be somewhat higher on average when productivity is unexpectedly low, and conversely, will tend to be somewhat lower on average when productivity is unexpectedly high. But over time, wages do eventually adjust to reflect productivity levels.

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