U.S. labor force participation: a jigsaw exercise

Mark Maier, Glendale Community College,
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Working first in expert teams, then returning to their base teams, students explore reasons for changes in U.S. labor force participation for men, women, younger workers, older workers, Hispanics and African-Americans. Although economists do not have definitive explanations for all trends in labor force participation, students will gain practice in the using data to reach reasonable conclusions.

Context for Use

Prior to the exercise students should have learned the technical definition of the labor force.

The activity is appropriate for a Principles of Macroeconomics course, either in a section on unemployment and employment or on labor markets.

In an intermediate labor economics course, students will be able to apply a more sophisticated understanding.


Economists do not fully understand recent trends in U.S. labor force participation. In this activity students explore data for the overall labor force and then sub-groups based on gender, age, race and ethnicity. In doing so students practice skills in analyzing data and understanding the meaning of a particular statistic, in this case labor force participation.

The jigsaw format requires each team member to engage in the activity, first practicing their analysis with other students studying the same population sub-group, and then returning to their base team as an expert.

Expected Student Learning Outcomes

Students will be able to analyze historical labor market data, identifying relevant trends and providing hypotheses to explain those trends.

Information Given to Students

For the entire class before the jigsaw begins distribute a handout with the following:
Based on the following graph [insert graph A] what are the important historical trends in U.S. labor force participation?
Then, as detailed in the notes below, teams identify the main trends in U.S. labor force participation--but do not attempt to explain these trends.

Next, introduce the jigsaw as follows

Each team receives a set of graphs, one different graph for each team member (If there are more than six team members, double up on graph B or C; if there are fewer than six team members, omit graph G or F).

Identify tables or parts of the room where "expert groups" B, C, D, E, F and G will meet (best to label them: men, women, young workers, older workers, Latinos, African-Americans). Instruct students to leave their base team and join the "expert" team based on their assigned graph.

Expert teams consider the following question on their instruction sheet:

Based on the graph for [insert group] what are the most important trends in labor force participation?
What hypotheses might explain each of these trends?

Graph A Civilian US labor force participation rate. Graph used to introduce the topic

Graph B Men's labor force participation

Graph C Women's labor force participation

Graph D Young people's labor force participation

Graph E Older people's labor force participation

Graph F Latino/Hispanic labor force participation

Graph G Black/African-American labor force participation

After working in the expert groups, students return to their base teams and the jigsaw proceeds as described below in the teaching notes.

Teaching Notes and Tips

Graph A that begins the activity highlights two important trends in U.S. labor market participation: an earlier rise and a later fall. In addition, students may note random variation in the monthly data, increased decline during recessions and a very recent leveling off in the trend.

Before the jigsaw section, the entire class should identify these trends. No attempt should be made at this point to explain the trends. It is sufficient to list them. As a side issue, the question can be asked: why does it matter? Do we want the labor force participation rate to be high or low?

This initial work is best done by base teams but if time is a constraint, it can be done as an entire class.

The next step is for students to work in expert groups based on a population sub-group. Pass out graphs B, C, D, E, F and G so that each student on a base team has one graph. If there are more than six team members, double up graphs B or C. If there are fewer than six team members, omit graphs F or G.

Depending on the level of the course, it is helpful to explain that students will be practicing what economists do in their professional lives. This is an economics problem for which economists do not have complete answers.

Working in the expert groups, students first identify the important trends in their sub-group data and then identify possible hypotheses to explain these trends.

After returning to their base teams, the class works on one sub-group at a time. Ask the expert to explain the trends they identified for that sub-group and the possible hypotheses. It is helpful if the relevant graph can be displayed for the entire class to see as only the expert will have a paper copy of the graph.

Next call on one expert (good to use a spinner to identify the team randomly) to explain to the entire class the trend and hypotheses. Ask other experts to agree or disagree. As noted below, some trends are reasonably explained; others are still poorly understood by economists (see references below.)

As a final step in analyzing each sub-group, ask how the hypotheses here might explain the overall U.S. trend in labor market participation-- or to what degree they contradict what was happening in the larger labor market.


A possible final written assessment could be to ask students to analyze a new graph for a group not analyzed thus far. Possibilities are ethnicity omitted, education group or other country data (see FRED data

References and Resources

On the jigsaw method see this web site

On labor force participation see Symposium: the Problems of Men in Journal of Economic Perspectives Spring 2019