21.1 How Economists Define and Compute Unemployment Rate
Unemployment imposes high costs. Unemployed individuals suffer from loss of income and from stress. An economy with high unemployment suffers an opportunity cost of unused resources. We can divide the adult population into those in the labor force and those out of the labor force. In turn, we divide those in the labor force into employed and unemployed. A person without a job must be willing and able to work and actively looking for work to be counted as unemployed; otherwise, a person without a job is counted as out of the labor force. Economists define the unemployment rate as the number of unemployed persons divided by the number of persons in the labor force (not the overall adult population). The Current Population Survey (CPS) conducted by the United States Census Bureau measures the percentage of the labor force that is unemployed. The establishment payroll survey by the Bureau of Labor Statistics measures the net change in jobs created for the month.
21.2 Patterns of Unemployment
The U.S. unemployment rate rises during periods of recession and depression, but falls back to the range of 4% to 6% when the economy is strong. The unemployment rate never falls to zero. Despite enormous growth in the size of the U.S. population and labor force in the twentieth century, along with other major trends like globalization and new technology, the unemployment rate shows no long-term rising trend.
Unemployment rates differ by group: higher for African-Americans and Hispanics than for whites; higher for less educated than more educated; higher for the young than the middle-aged. Women’s unemployment rates used to be higher than men’s, but in recent years men’s and women’s unemployment rates have been very similar. In recent years, unemployment rates in the United States have compared favorably with unemployment rates in most other high-income economies.
21.3 What Causes Changes in Unemployment over the Short Run
Cyclical unemployment rises and falls with the business cycle. In a labor market with flexible wages, wages will adjust in such a market so that quantity demanded of labor always equals the quantity supplied of labor at the equilibrium wage. Economists have proposed many theories for why wages might not be flexible, but instead may adjust only in a “sticky” way, especially when it comes to downward adjustments: implicit contracts, efficiency wage theory, adverse selection of wage cuts, insider-outsider model, and relative wage coordination.
21.4 What Causes Changes in Unemployment over the Long Run
The natural rate of unemployment is the rate of unemployment that the economic, social, and political forces in the economy would cause even when the economy is not in a recession. These factors include the frictional unemployment that occurs when people either choose to change jobs or are put out of work for a time by the shifts of a dynamic and changing economy. They also include any laws concerning conditions of hiring and firing that have the undesired side effect of discouraging job formation. They also include structural unemployment, which occurs when demand shifts permanently away from a certain type of job skill.