From the mid-17th century to the late 20th century, the American economy grew roughly 3.5% a year. That growth rate has since declined significantly. When the final figures are in for 2012, the annual rate of real output growth for the first dozen years of this century is likely to be about 1.81%.
What accounts for the slowdown? An important part of the answer is simple: Americans aren’t working as much today. And this trend reflects more than the recession and sluggish economy of the past few years.
The national income accounts suggest that about 70% of U.S. output is attributable to the labor of human beings. Yet there has been a decline in the proportion of working-age Americans who are employed.
In recent decades there was a steady rise in the employment-to-population ratio: For every 100 working-age Americans, there were eight more workers in 2000 than in 1960. The increase entirely reflects higher female participation in the labor force. Yet in the years since 2000, more than two-thirds of that increase in working-age population employed was erased.