IT IS CONVENTIONAL WISDOM AMONG builders that the strength of the U.S. economy, particularly its ability to create new jobs, will prevent a prolonged downturn in buyer demand for new homes. But it seems counterintuitive to put one's faith in a job-growth engine that has been driven by a housing sector that is now sputtering.

For at least a decade, a robust housing market has helped to sustain the nation's economic health. For example, between 1990 and 2005, roughly 7 percent of the 581,294 jobs created in the eight counties that encompass metro Atlanta were construction-related, and the construction sector's job-growth rate, 63.4 percent, significantly outpaced the counties' total growth rate from all business sectors—which was 48.9 percent, according to the Georgia Statistics System.

This connection wasn't lost on economists who blamed a weakening housing market for the less-than-stellar 2.5 percent second-quarter increase in the nation's gross domestic product. Analysts saw a link between the flattening residential job growth in the first half of 2006—during which several large builders curtailed production and started laying off workers in some divisions—and the rise in unemployment in July to 4.8 percent, a four-year high and perilously close to the 5 percent level at which some housing industry watchers say they would start to panic.

Jared Bernstein, an economist with the Washington-based Economic Policy Institute, foresees choppier waters ahead on the job front, as the average number of weeks spent job seeking in July increased by more than one week, from 16.2 to 17.3, the largest monthly jump since last August.

Unemployment is always an unpredictable barometer because it is susceptible to shifting demographics that have a tendency not to follow anticipated patterns. For example, a report that the Pew Hispanic Center published in August found, contrary to popular belief, that the massive immigration influx over the past 15 years has had little negative impact on the ability of native-born Americans to find work. On the other hand, AARP points to U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data that project American workers ages 55 to 64 will increase by 51 percent between now and 2012. During that period, the number of those 65 to 74 and still working will increase by 48 percent. In 2002, officials say, about one in seven employed Americans was 55 or older. By 2012, it will be closer to one in five, putting even greater stress on a national job machine that's always under duress.