Predicting almost anything about the economy ten years or so out is a pretty risky business – which is why I rarely make such forecasts and don’t obsessively follow those made by others. But for many years, I’ve been tracking the growth of what I call the subsidized private sector in the U.S. employment picture. And the U.S. government just came out with a study taking the story out to 2030. So my curiosity was piqued, and because the ever greater importance of such employment speaks volumes about the strengths and weaknesses of the American economy, its workers, and their prospects, I hope yours will be, too.
The big takeaway? According to the U.S. Labor Department’s new Occupational Outlook Handbook, jobs in the healthcare and social assistance sectors will keep rising through the end of the decade as a share of all U.S. jobs – and this shouldn’t be seen as good news.
As I’ve pointed out repeatedly (e.g., here), this isn’t to say that healthcare or social assistance aren’t important for any number of reasons that should be obvious. Economically speaking, however, they’re problematic for two related reasons. First, although they’re technically classified as private sector jobs, their employment levels are largely determined by decisions made by politicians to provide funding, not market forces.
And that funding – or subsidization – is massive. A think tank called the Tax Policy Center pegged federal spending on healthcare alone (by far the biggest industry in the subsidized private sector) at $1.2 trillion in fiscal year 2019. A related research organization, the Urban Institute, reported that state and local governments poured $301 billion into health and hospitals during the previous fiscal year. (That’s the latest such data I could find.) If the state and local figure stayed the same in 2019, this public spending would have added up to just over seven percent of the entire U.S. economy and more than 40 percent of all government outlays that year.
The second reason to be concerned about outsized job growth in this subsidized private sector is that typically, the real private sector is the economy’s main source of innovation and productivity growth, which in turn area major foundations of sustainable prosperity – and therefore of the ability to pay for government in a financially responsible way, as opposed to more and more borrowing. A subsidized private sector punching above its job-creation weight is a sign that the real private sector’s economic role is shrinking in relative terms.
And the Occupational Outlook Handbook says that these trends will continue through 2030. Specifically, whereas other Labor Department data show that subsidized private sector jobs accounted for 16.11 percent of all U.S. non-farm jobs (the Labor Department’s definition of the American employment universe, which includes government jobs at all levels as such) in February, 2020 (just before the CCP Virus pandemic arrived in force), the Handbook‘s figures indicate that this figure will rise to 16.86 percent by the end of the decade.
In addition, subsidized private sector jobs will have climbed from 18.94 percent of all real private sector jobs in February, 2020 to 19.80 percent in 2030.
For some perspective, in June, 2009 (the end of the Great Recession that followed the global financial crisis), the subsidized private sector represented only 14.97 percent of jobs in the non-farm sector and 18.09 percent of those in the real private sector.
Conseqently, it should be no surprise that the Handbook‘s projections indicate that real private sector jobs will have fallen from 68.92 percent of all non-farm jobs in February, 2020 to 68.29 percent.
These shifts may look like small beans. But economies and workforces as massive as America’s don’t change much overnight (unless they’re hit by an outside shock like the pandemic). Also, the Labor Department could be wrong, even if the next few years are relatively tranquil. Yet its predictions track well with recent (pre-CCP Virus) trends.
So even though I haven’t been monitoring subsidized private employment developments during the virus period (because like pretty much all other economic statistics, they’ve been so distorted), I’ll resume checking them periodically again and hoping the trend lines start moving in different directions.