Dear Mr. Greenspan,

I understand, from recent circumspect utterances, that you are concerned about the draining of the labor pool. Once Olympic sized and overflowing with eager workers, the miserable thing now stands forlorn and nearly empty. After years of downsizing that caused people to go begging, some are now worried about jobs going begging. Me, I'd rather see a job beg than a person but that's a whole different subject.

The point here is that you, and a lot of other people, are worried that all these "Now Hiring" and "Help Wanted" signs might put workers in a mood to ask for higher wages, although most wouldn't have to moxie to ask for what executive America has gotten away with for years. Those higher wages, in turn, could incite higher inflation and spoil the party we've all enjoyed for so long.

Well, I think I know where we can find three or four million people who would consider working. With the December Labor Department figures showing that we now have only 5.7 million people unemployed and a meager 4.1 percent national unemployment rate, having that many more people reading the employment ads would really help to get the work done and put a lid on inflation.

Yes, I know that some employers complain that a lot of job seekers are too dim-witted to work, and that's probably true. But it's also probably true that a lot of employers, such as the fast food and movie theater chain folks who want people to work short shifts at $7 an hour, are too dim-witted to attract employees. But that's a whole different subject, too.

So where are these three or four million people?

They are out there among those no longer seeking work. The labor force participation rate--- which is the number of people seeking work divided by the number of people that age--- is chugging along at a hefty 67.1 percent. That's up from 63.8 percent in 1980. A closer look, however, shows that a lot of men who are middle aged and older have dropped out of the work force. Meanwhile women are joining the work force. If we could get men to have as much enthusiasm for work in 2000 as they had in 1980, we'd have about 3.6 million more job seekers.

Yes, I know that's hard to believe. So let me give you the numbers.

In 1980 the participation rate for men 45 to 54 was 91.2 percent but, after years of downsizing, it had fallen to 89.1 percent in 1996 and was projected to only 88.4 percent by this year. That's a decline of 2.8 percentage points. Meanwhile, the participation rate for women that age rose from 59.9 percent to 75.4 percent in 1996, with 78.2 percent projected for this year.

The change was even more dramatic for people 55 to 64 years of age. In that category 72.1 percent of all men were working in 1980 but only 66.0 percent were projected to be working by 2000. That's a decline of 6.1 percentage points. During the same period the participation rate for women rose. The pattern was identical for people 65 and older, although the participation rate was much lower. (See table below.)

Participation Rates: Men Are Working Less, Women Are Working More

Age Group 1980 1996 2000 (proj.) 1980-2000 change
45-54 91.2% 89.1% 88.4% (2.8)%
55-64 72.1 67.0 66.0 (6.1)
65+ 19.0 16.9 16.5 (2.5)
45-54 59.9 75.4 78.2 18.3
55-64 41.3 49.6 53.4 12.1
65+ 8.1 8.6 9.5 1.4

Source: Statistical Abstract of the United States

By my calculation, we could add about 2.5 million men who were 45-54; nearly 700,000 men who were 55-64; and about 400,000 men from 65 to 75 years of age to the labor force--- a total of 3.6 million--- if we could "turn back the clock" to 1980.

Somehow, I don't think this many men are happily at home, clipping coupons and trading Internet stocks. Similarly, I doubt that they are all decrepit or incompetent. Something may have chased them out of the marketplace.

What can we do to bring them back?

That's something the politicians should talk about this year. One suggestion would be to eliminate the taxation and penalties on earnings for Social Security recipients. Another would be to include health insurance with more jobs, full or part time. Many people in their fifties would go back to work simply for health insurance. Still another idea would be to create a "second worker" tax credit in married households, offsetting the burden of both the employment tax and the so-called "marriage tax."

The point here, Mr. Greenspan, is that there are better ways to take pressure off the economy than our tradition of poisoning it with high interest rates.