Yes, the job market really is weak
A small debate has ensued between James Hamilton of Econbrowser and Pro-Growth Liberal of AngryBear over the interpretation of recent employment data, with the central dispute over whether current employment levels are 'good enough'. Rather than wrestling over the distorting effects of teenage employment or the question of whether a return to the total employment levels of 2000 is either realistic or desirable, I suggest focusing in on a group of workers who over time are almost always in need of work, who do not wax and wane with educational or retirement opportunities, nor with social trends toward greater workforce participation rates: men age 25-64.
The below graph shows the quarterly employment-to-population ratio without seasonal adjustment for men age 25-64, from 1977:I to 2005:II. As you can clearly see, at the peak of the last two economic cycles the ratio topped out in the 85.5-86.0 range. Currently the level is just 83.2, right where it was three years ago and nowhere close to the levels of the late 1990s.
Perhaps more distressingly, today's EP ratio is still below the 4-quarter moving average trough of the mid-1990s and around the levels of the early-1980s trough (save the disaster of 1983:I). The chart also shows that the late 1990s was hardly an anomaly in terms of employment for "working age" men. In fact, the late 1990s saw a slightly lower peak than the late 1980s did.
I think there's no doubt about it: this job "recovery" needs a recovery of its own.