WASHINGTON — A streak of robust job growth came to a halt in March, signaling that U.S. employers may have grown cautious in a fragile economy.
The gain of 88,000 jobs was the smallest in nine months. Even a decline in unemployment to a four-year low of 7.6 percent was nothing to cheer: It fell because more people stopped looking and no longer were counted as unemployed.
The weak jobs report Friday from the Labor Department surprised analysts and served as a reminder the economy is recovering slowly nearly four years after the Great Recession ended.
“This is not a good report through and through,” Dan Greenhaus, chief economic strategist at brokerage firm BTIG, said in a note to clients.
March’s job gain was less than half the average 196,000 jobs in the previous six months. This could be the fourth straight year the economy and hiring have shown strength early in the first few months of the year, only to weaken. Some economists say weak hiring may persist into summer before rebounding by fall.
The percentage of working-age Americans with a job or looking for one fell to 63.3 percent in March, the lowest in nearly 34 years.
Stocks plummeted after the report but narrowed losses later in the day. The Dow Jones industrial average closed down about 41 points.
The Labor Department uses a survey of mostly large businesses and government agencies to determine how many jobs are added or lost each month. That’s the survey that produced the gain of 88,000 jobs for March.
The government uses a separate survey of households to calculate the jobless rate. It counted 290,000 fewer people as unemployed — not because they found a job but because they stopped looking for one.
The percentage of working-age adults with a job or looking for one is a figure economists call the participation rate. At 63.3 percent, it’s the lowest since 1979.
Longer-term trends have helped keep down the participation rate. The vast generation of Baby Boomers has begun to retire. The share of men 20 and older in the labor force has dropped as manufacturing has shrunk.
The share of women working or looking for work has plateaued. Fewer teenagers are working. And some who have left the job market are getting by on government aid, particularly Social Security’s program for the disabled.