We said yesterday’s GDP numbers were historical, and today’s ABS jobs data for August would give us a clearer picture of how the economy is currently travelling.

Well, the picture is a little clearer, but not much. The doomsayers who were chanting for a rate cut yesterday have to swallow a fall in the unemployment rate to 5.1%, seasonally adjusted. But that’s where the good news ends. There was a fall in employment, down just under 9000, driven by a fall in part-time jobs (traditional retail woes?) but the participation rate also fell, down 0.2% to 65%. Participation briefly peaked at 66% at the end of 2010; since then it has been falling, and it’s not a good sign, but the reasons are unclear — perhaps simple failure to find work — although it has been more pronounced among men than women. Aggregate hours worked fell, too.

So, the jobs market isn’t strong by any measure, nor is it in a death spiral as some of the more alarmist commentators would have you believe. Jobs are being lost and jobs creation has slowed to a crawl, perhaps suggesting that a readjustment upwards in the unemployment rate and the number of people out of work might be just around the corner. That’s what Treasury and the RBA forecast for this year. But then again, it might not as the jobs market keeps showing resilience.

The trend unemployment rate remained steady at 5.2% — it’s been at that level or better (5.1% for all of 2012) and back to August of last year. In fact it was 5.2% in August 2010. The picture does look better on a trend basis: employment increased to 11,509 million from a revised July 2012 estimate of 11.507 million (11.517 million originally reported). Unemployment rise to 631,700 from 629,100. But aggregate monthly hours worked fell to 1619.5 million hours on a trend basis too.

The small rise in full-time jobs — just 600 — could be the dying embers of the strength in the mining and resource sector, or it could tell us that a few employers remain confident about the outlook. But taken with the drop in job ads last month and other indicators, the economy seems to have drifted lower since the 0.6% growth in GDP in the three months to June.

Also out this morning were industrial disputes figures, and there was a surge in the June quarter (watch the AFR seize with glee on them and give them loads of column centimetres tomorrow). Days lost to disputes rocketed from 35,800 to 101,700. Before the IR deregulistas fire up though, the ABS pointed out the “high numbers of working days lost were driven by large disputes in the education and training and healthcare and social assistance industries in June quarter 2012 and September quarter 2011. The combined education and training and healthcare and social assistance industries accounted for 67,800 (67%) of the total number of working days lost in the June quarter 2012.”

Those sectors of course are under state governments, not the Fair Work Act; and many of the state disputes are being driven by state governments slashing and burning their public services. Against that, though, there’s the troubled coal industry, which had the highest number working days lost out of any industry.

Just the perfect set of numbers, really, for commentators — something for everyone.