WASHINGTON – The weakest month of hiring in three years ended 2013 on a sluggish note and raised questions about whether the U.S. job market can sustain its recent strong gains.
Employers added a scant 74,000 jobs in December after averaging 214,000 in the previous four months. Economists cautioned that cold weather likely played a role in the slowdown. Many analysts said they will need to see more data before they can tell whether the job market has lost momentum.
The Labor Department said Friday that the unemployment rate fell from 7 percent in November to 6.7 percent, its lowest level since October 2008. But the drop occurred mostly because many Americans stopped looking for jobs. Once people without jobs stop looking for one, the government no longer counts them as unemployed.
The proportion of people either working or looking for work fell to 62.8 percent, matching a nearly 36-year low. Last month’s expiration of extended unemployment benefits for 1.3 million long-term unemployed could accelerate that trend if many of them stop looking for work. Beneficiaries had been required to look for work to receive unemployment checks.
Many economists said it would be premature to conclude from Friday’s report that the economy is weakening.
“We stop short of making larger observations based on this number,” said Dan Greenhaus, chief global strategist at brokerage firm BTIG. “The economy, based on any number of other indicators, has been picking up steam of late, which makes today’s number . . . curious.”