Updated Aug 30, 2023 - Economy

Goodbye Great Resignation: The labor market returns to pre-pandemic normalcy

Illustration of a virus cell landing on an upward trending line and weighing it down.

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

The job market is returning to a familiar place: strong, but no longer in its overheated, pandemic recovery state.

Why it matters: Those COVID-19 distortions had great benefits for workers, with plentiful job opportunities and booming wage gains. For the Fed, the out-of-whack dynamic fueled inflation.

  • But now, the labor market looks more reminiscent of pre-pandemic times, with sustainable conditions appealing to both American workers and central bankers.

What's new: Key indicators released this week support that conclusion.

  • The latest is ADP's employment report, which shows job growth coming off a boil. Private-sector employment increased by 177,000 in August, a notable slowdown from the 324,000 gain the prior month.
  • The rate of people voluntarily quitting their jobs — an indicator of workers' confidence in their job market options — fell to pre-pandemic levels in July, according to data out Tuesday.

What they're saying: "This is a month where we saw the hiring that has defined the post-pandemic recovery go from exceptional to sustainable," ADP chief economist Nela Richardson said on a call Wednesday with reporters.

  • The data "really does represent a pivot back to normal — normally strong instead of abnormally strong," Richardson added.

Between the lines: The Great Resignation was one of the more high-profile labor market trends, one that suggested a hot labor market triggered unprecedented job-switching rates.

  • That is officially in the past, as the quits rate fell to 2.3% in July, returning to the rate seen in February 2020, according to the Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey (JOLTS).
  • In the leisure and hospitality sector, the poster child of the "quits boom," workers are quitting at a slower rate than before the pandemic.
  • Hiring, as measured by JOLTS, happened at a rate more in line with pre-pandemic trends. Layoffs remain at low levels consistent with the pre-COVID labor market.

Yes, but: Other indicators point to a labor market where demand for workers still outnumbers supply of them relative to pre-pandemic times, though to a lesser extent than in 2022.

  • For instance, there are 1.5 open jobs for every available worker, down from the peak of two open jobs seen in March 2022.

The intrigue: "We can't go all the way back to the 2019 labor market when we have 2023 interest rates. That's going to determine hiring to a certain extent," Richardson said. She noted interest rate-sensitive sectors like financial services where hiring is flat.

What's next: The government payrolls report, out Friday, is expected to show the economy added 170,000 jobs in August — the fewest since December 2020.

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