Does George Will understand how unemployment is measured?

I read George Will. His dour and dourer columns lose me sometimes, but he’s generally a good read — and a columnist who should be respected for his principled, consistent positions.

But sometimes he clearly doesn’t understand what he’s talking about. Yesterday was one of those days.

In Can Romney turn this contest around?, Will details reasons that Obama ought to be facing defeat, including this choice snippet:

That the most recent figures show a 13.2 percent decline in durable goods orders. That nearly 25 percent — the highest in three decades — of Americans between ages 25 and 55 are unemployed. That the second-quarter growth rate was adjusted down from an anemic 1.7 percent to the stall speed of 1.3 percent.

Wait. So 25 percent of Americans of prime working age are unemployed?

Will is citing a recent opinion piece in the WSJ by David Malpass: Economic Signals Point to a 2013 Recession. More on the recession prospects in a future post, but here’s the passage from which Will gets his astonishing unemployment number:

Nearly 25% of Americans ages 25 to 55 are not employed, the highest percentage in 30 years, pointing toward an atrophy in job skills that may take decades to repair.

Does Will understand the difference between “unemployed” and “not employed”? Or is he letting his own biases convince him that we’re actually seeing depression levels of unemployment? Or is he just so bad with numbers that he shouldn’t be using them at all?

Unemployment percentages are determined by dividing the number of people who are looking for work nut can’t find any by the entire number of people who are part of the labor force. Many Americans are not employed by choice or circumstance — they’re going to school, they’re stay-at-home parents, they’re disabled. Some in the 25 to 55 age group are even retired.

Of Americans over the age of 25 who consider themselves part of the labor force, the unemployment rate is 6.8 percent.

Sure, we should be concerned that so many Americans are leaving the labor force. Sure, we should be concerned about skills atrophying.

But George Will does everyone a disservice with such sloppy and hyperbolic use of data.

For the record, here’s the data Will was talking about — the employment to population ratio for 25-54 year olds. This is from Calculated Risk using numbers from the most recent Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates:

As you can see, the ratio climbed for decades — primarily because of more women entering the labor force — and has been declining for most of the last decade. That’s in part because of weak job growth during almost all of those years (both under Bush and Obama) and because of structural changes — more stay-at-home spouses, more older Americans returning to college, an increase in young retirees, etc. The ratio has actually recovered some since the end of the recession, and I’d expect it to hit as high 78 percent in a few years as the job market improves. I doubt it will return to the high water mark of the late 90s, but it could.