Declining Desire to Work and Downward Trends in Unemployment and Participation

Regis Barnichon, Andrew Figura

NBER Working Paper No. 21252
Issued in June 2015
NBER Program(s):   EFG   LS   ME   PE

This paper argues that a key aspect of the US labor market is the presence of time-varying heterogeneity across nonparticipants. We document a decline in the share of nonparticipants who report wanting to work, and we argue that that decline, which was particularly strong in the second half of the 90s, is a major aspect of the downward trends in unemployment and participation over the past 20 years. A decline in the share of "want to work" nonparticipants lowers both the participation rate and the unemployment rate, because a nonparticipant who wants to work has (i) a higher probability of entering the labor force (compared to other nonparticipants), and (ii) a higher probability of joining unemployment conditional on entering the labor force. We use cross-sectional variation to estimate a model of nonparticipants' propensity to want to work, and we find that changes in the provision of welfare and social insurance, possibly linked to the mid-90s welfare reforms, explain about 50 percent of the decline in desire to work among nonparticipants.

You may purchase this paper on-line in .pdf format from ($5) for electronic delivery.

Access to NBER Papers

You are eligible for a free download if you are a subscriber, a corporate associate of the NBER, a journalist, an employee of the U.S. federal government with a ".GOV" domain name, or a resident of nearly any developing country or transition economy.

If you usually get free papers at work/university but do not at home, you can either connect to your work VPN or proxy (if any) or elect to have a link to the paper emailed to your work email address below. The email address must be connected to a subscribing college, university, or other subscribing institution. Gmail and other free email addresses will not have access.


Supplementary materials for this paper:

Machine-readable bibliographic record - MARC, RIS, BibTeX

Document Object Identifier (DOI): 10.3386/w21252

Published: Declining Desire to Work and Downward Trends in Unemployment and Participation, Regis Barnichon, Andrew Figura. in NBER Macroeconomics Annual 2015, Volume 30, Eichenbaum and Parker. 2016

Users who downloaded this paper also downloaded* these:
Aghion, Akcigit, Bergeaud, Blundell, and Hemous w21247 Innovation and Top Income Inequality
Haltiwanger, Hyatt, and McEntarfer w21235 Cyclical Reallocation of Workers Across Employers by Firm Size and Firm Wage
Lawrence w21296 Recent Declines in Labor's Share in US Income: A Preliminary Neoclassical Account
Chang, Chen, Waggoner, and Zha w21244 Trends and Cycles in China's Macroeconomy
Mulligan w21358 Fiscal Policies and the Prices of Labor: A Comparison of the U.K. and U.S.
NBER Videos

National Bureau of Economic Research, 1050 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge, MA 02138; 617-868-3900; email:

Contact Us