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February 1983, Vol. 106, No. 2
International comparisons of
labor force participation, 1960-81
A nine-country comparison of labor force participation rates reveals wide international differences in the proportion of the population offering their services in the labor market. For example, in 1981, when the U.S. labor force participation rate was 64 percent, 67 percent of all Swedes but only 48 percent of all Italians of working age were in the labor force. Participation rates have risen in the United States, Canada, Australia, and Sweden over the past two decades but have declined in France, Germany,1 Italy, and Japan. British rates have remained virtually unchanged.
Large international differences in participation rate levels and trends are especially apparent for women and young people. The differences for youth reflect variations in their propensity to continue in school or enter the labor market, or to combine work with school. The differences for women stem from their decision to work in the home or outside the home, to which the availability of part-time jobs and attitudes toward the role of women are contributing factors.
Data on participation rates help to explain the large long-term differences in labor force trends among industrial nations. For instance, the United States and Japan have had similar rates of population growth over the past two decades, yet the U.S. labor force has grown much faster than Japan's because participation rates for women and youth have risen in the United States while they have been falling in Japan. Short-term deviations in the trend of participation rates are an indicator of a dimension of labor slackwithdrawals from the labor forcewhich is not covered by the unemployment rate.2
This article presents internationally comparable data on civilian labor force participation rate3 for nine industrial nations over the past two decades. Participation rates are also presented separately by sex and for youths and adults, because overall rates mask marked differences in the trends and levels for men, women, young persons, and the elderly. The technical appendix gives a short description of data sources and adjustment methods.
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1 The Federal Republic, plus West Berlin.
2 International cyclical trends in participation will be analyzed in a future article.
3 Elsewhere, two types of labor force participation rates are published for the United States: the total labor force participation rate, which is the ratio of the total labor force to the total noninstitutional population, and the civilian participation rate, which is the ratio of the civilian labor force to the civilian noninstitutional population. The only difference is that the armed forces are included in the total rate for the United States was 64.4; the civilian rate was 63.9. Discussion in this article is limited to civilian labor force participation rates for the United States and the eight other countries covered.
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