Dec 13, 2021 - Economy

The labor shortage is a health problem

Illustration of a doctor's hand holding a stethoscope up to a briefcase.

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Almost half of unemployed Americans say health issues are the primary reason they're not working, according to new survey data from McKinsey, shared exclusively with Axios.

Why it matters: If one of the key drivers of the labor shortage is Americans' physical and mental health, rather than any lack of economic growth, then that means the Fed is not well placed to get millions more people working.

By the numbers: Mental health problems have reached epidemic proportions. McKinsey's American Opportunity Survey polled 5,000 Americans and found that 37% of them had been diagnosed with mental health issues, or sought treatment for their mental health.

Between the lines: The survey found that 16% of respondents were unemployed, with 9% looking for work and 7% not looking. Those numbers are much higher than the official unemployment rate of 4.2%.

  • Health was by far the main reason they said they weren't working. 15% said it was because of their mental health, and 30% said it was because of their physical health.
  • Among unemployed people who are not looking for work, the numbers are even higher: 20% say it's because of their mental health, and 45% say it's because of their physical health.
  • Where it stands: Health-related unemployment is on an upward trajectory, compared to the last time the survey was run, in March.

The big picture: The number of American jobs is about 9 million lower than the pre-pandemic trend. Only 59.2% of Americans are employed, down from 61.1% pre-pandemic and a high of 64.7% in 2000.

  • The number of job openings, however, is at an all-time high of more than 11 million.

The bottom line: The pandemic has been very tough on America's physical and mental health. That explains a large part of the labor shortage, and it's not something that can be fixed with low interest rates.

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