Updated at 10:53 a.m. ET

Hiring slowed somewhat in December, as U.S. employers added 145,000 jobs. According to the Labor Department, that's down slightly from the three previous months, when employers added an average of 200,000 jobs. But the unemployment rate held steady at 3.5%, matching its lowest level in 50 years.

For all of 2019, the economy added 2.1 million jobs — the slowest pace of annual job growth since 2011. Job gains for October and November were revised down by a total of 14,000.

Average wages have increased 2.9% over the last year, outpacing inflation and boosting workers' buying power. Wage gains are still relatively modest, however, given the rock-bottom jobless rate.

That suggests there may be more slack in the labor market than the unemployment figure would indicate. The share of Americans in their prime working years — from 25 to 54 — who are either employed or looking for work is still lower than it was two decades ago. Overall, participation in the labor force was 63.2% in December, unchanged from the month before.

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Steady job gains, coupled with wage increases, are expected to keep fueling consumer spending in 2020. Consumers have been the most reliable drivers in the U.S. economy as business investment has faded.

Factories lost 12,000 jobs last month. The manufacturing sector has been hard hit by the trade war as well as slowing demand overseas. An index of manufacturing activity fell in December to its lowest level in more than a decade.

By contrast, the much larger services sector — which includes everything from health care and hospitality to transportation and finance — has been more insulated from global shocks. Service sector activity accelerated in December. And service-sector jobs accounted for 97% of December's new hires.

Health care continued to show solid growth, with 28,000 jobs added last month. Retailers, who have struggled in recent months, added 41,000 jobs.

Excluding the self-employed, women outnumbered men on the employment rolls in December for the first time since 2010. That reflects the growth in female-dominated fields such as education and hospitality, and the decline in manufacturing.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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