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Better enjoy your pay hike while it lasts

Consider it a stocking stuffer. Worker pay, which has barely kept ahead of inflation during the painfully slow economic recovery, is picking up speed.

Over the last three months, hourly wages have risen at an annual rate of 2.8 percent, up significantly from 2.3 percent for 2015 as a whole. Coupled with other measures of economic growth, it suggests that the firming U.S. job market is finally putting more money in people's pockets, and sets the stage for stronger growth next year.

The uptick led Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen to say last week that "we have seen a welcome pickup in the growth rate of average hourly earnings."

The economy is expected to carry that momentum into next year. Notably, job openings around the country are at their highest level since 2008, according to The Conference Board. The number of online job postings around the country is at an all-time high, with demand for workers in November up in 49 states.

"Looking ahead, the combination of expanding worker demand and eroding slack is expected to put further upward pressure on compensation costs in 2016," economists with SG Global Economics said in a recent note.

Jeffrey Cleveland, an economist with investment firm Payden & Rygel, predicts that the nation's jobless rate, currently 5 percent, will continue to decline in 2016, pushing the annual rate of growth in hourly pay north of 3 percent. That would be consistent with the kind of earnings rebound the U.S. has seen after previous recessions, but that so far has eluded workers in the most recent downturn.

Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta

Should fatter paychecks have consumers dancing in the aisles? Not quite. Since August, average hourly pay is up a total of 21 cents, hardly the stuff that shopping sprees are made of.

Not surprising, then, that consumer spending this holiday season, including Black Friday, has to date been fairly muted. An uneven recovery has also left many parts of the U.S. mired in poverty, with millions of Americans still struggling to make ends meet.

More broadly, experts are scratching their heads over why the economy, even as it rebounds from the housing crash, appears to have downshifted to a lower rate of growth. During the recovery, which started in mid-2009, the nation's gross domestic product -- the total value of all goods and services produced in a year -- has hovered between 2 percent and 2.5 percent.

That's much weaker than the 3 percent to 4 percent average pace of growth that prevailed between World War II and the late 1990s, raising questions about America's long-term economic output. The National Association for Business Economics predicts that growth will average between 2 percent and 2.5 percent over the next five years, pointing to weakening productivity gains.

Finally, and perhaps least conducive to holiday cheer, is that by historical standards the ongoing U.S. recovery, now going on seven years, is fairly mature. That raises the risk of a recession over the next two or three years, economists warn. Enjoy your eggnog!