What Is the Labor Market?

The labor market, also known as the job market, refers to the supply of and demand for labor, in which employees provide the supply and employers provide the demand. It is a major component of any economy and is intricately linked to markets for capital, goods, and services.

Key Takeaways

  • The labor market refers to the supply of and demand for labor, in which employees provide the supply and employers provide the demand.
  • The labor market should be viewed at both the macroeconomic and microeconomic levels.
  • Unemployment rates and labor productivity rates are two important macroeconomic gauges.
  • Individual wages and the number of hours worked are two important microeconomic gauges.

Understanding the Labor Market

At the macroeconomic level, supply and demand are influenced by domestic and international market dynamics, as well as factors such as immigration, the age of the population, and education levels. Relevant measures include unemployment, productivity, participation rates, total income, and gross domestic product (GDP).

At the microeconomic level, individual firms interact with employees, hiring them, firing them, and raising or cutting wages and hours. The relationship between supply and demand influences the number of hours employees work and the compensation they receive in wages, salary, and benefits.

The U.S. Labor Market

The macroeconomic view of the labor market can be difficult to capture, but a few data points can give investors, economists, and policymakers an idea of its health. The first is unemployment. During times of economic stress, the demand for labor lags behind supply, driving unemployment up. High rates of unemployment exacerbate economic stagnation, contribute to social upheaval, and deprive large numbers of people of the opportunity to lead fulfilling lives.

In the U.S. unemployment was around 4% to 5% before the Great Recession, when large numbers of businesses failed, many people lost their homes, and demand for goods and services—and the labor to produce them—plummeted. Unemployment reached 10% in 2009 but declined more or less steadily to 3.5% in February 2020. However, almost 7 million people filed unemployment claims in a single week in April 2020; that number dropped to 1.1 million people in the week ending Aug.15, 2020, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. This led to the following headline on Fortune: “Real unemployment in the United States has likely hit 14.7%, the highest level since 1940.”

Labor productivity is another important gauge of the labor market and broader economic health, measuring the output produced per hour of labor. Productivity has risen in many economies, the U.S. included, in recent years due to advancements in technology and other improvements in efficiency.

In the U.S., growth in output per hour has not translated into similar growth in income per hour. Workers have been creating more goods and services per unit of time, but they have not been earning much more in compensation. The Economic Policy Institute analysis of U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data showed that while net productivity rose 69.6% from 1979 to 2018, wages only grew 11.6% (after adjusting for inflation).

More Labor Supply Than Demand

The fact that productivity growth has far outstripped wage growth means that the supply of labor has outpaced the demand for it.

The Labor Market in Macroeconomic Theory 

According to the macroeconomic theory, the fact that wage growth lags productivity growth indicates that the supply of labor has outpaced demand. When that happens, there is downward pressure on wages, as workers compete for a scarce number of jobs and employers have their pick of the labor force. Conversely, if demand outpaces supply, there is upward pressure on wages, as workers have more bargaining power and are more likely to be able to switch to a higher paying job, while employers must compete for scarce labor.

Labor Market
Image by Julie Bang © Investopedia 2019

Some factors can influence labor supply and demand. For example, an increase in immigration to a country can grow the labor supply and potentially depress wages, particularly if newly arrived workers are willing to accept lower pay. An aging population can deplete the supply of labor and potentially drive up wages.

These factors don’t always have such straightforward consequences, though. A country with an aging population will see demand for many goods and services decline, while demand for healthcare increases. Not every worker who loses their job can simply move into healthcare work, particularly if the jobs in demand are highly skilled and specialized, such as doctors and nurses. For this reason, demand can exceed supply in certain sectors, even if supply exceeds demand in the labor market as a whole.

Factors influencing supply and demand don’t work in isolation, either. If it weren’t for immigration, the U.S. would be a much older—and probably less dynamic—society, so while an influx of unskilled workers might have exerted downward pressure on wages, it likely offset declines in demand. 

Other factors influencing contemporary labor markets, and the U.S. labor market, in particular, include the threat of automation as computer programs gain the ability to do more complex tasks; the effects of globalization as enhanced communication and better transport links allow work to be moved across borders; the price, quality, and availability of education; and a whole array of policies such as the minimum wage.

The Labor Market in Microeconomic Theory

The microeconomic theory analyzes labor supply and demand at the level of the individual firm and worker. Supply—or the hours an employee is willing to work—initially increases as wages increase. No workers will work voluntarily for nothing (unpaid interns are, in theory, working to gain experience and increase their desirability to other employers), and more people are willing to work for $20 an hour than $7 an hour.

Gains in supply may accelerate as wages increase, as the opportunity cost of not working additional hours grows. However, supply may then decrease at a certain wage level: The difference between $1,000 an hour and $1,050 is hardly noticeable, and the highly paid worker who’s presented with the option of working an extra hour or spending their money on leisure activities may well opt for the latter.

Labor Supply Curve
Image by Julie Bang © Investopedia 2019

Demand at the microeconomic level depends on two factors: marginal cost of production and marginal revenue product. If the marginal cost of hiring an additional employee, or having existing employees work more hours, exceeds the marginal revenue product, it will cut into earnings, and the firm would theoretically reject that option. If the opposite is true, it makes rational sense to take on more labor.

Neoclassical microeconomic theories of labor supply and demand have received criticism on some fronts. Most contentious is the assumption of “rational” choice—maximizing money while minimizing work—which to critics is not only cynical but not always supported by the evidence. Homo sapiens, unlike Homo economicus, may have all sorts of motivations for making specific choices. The existence of some professions in the arts and nonprofit sector undermines the notion of maximizing utility. Defenders of neoclassical theory counter that their predictions may have little bearing on a given individual but are useful when taking large numbers of workers in aggregate.