- Explain the nature and causes of unemployment
- Analyze the natural rate of unemployment and the factors that affect it
- Identify how undeveloped labor markets can result in the same hardships as unemployment
We can categorize the causes of unemployment in the world's high-income countries in two ways: either cyclical unemployment caused by the economy when in a recession, or the natural rate of unemployment caused by factors in labor markets, such as government regulations regarding hiring and starting businesses.
Unemployment from a Recession
For unemployment caused by a recession, the Keynesian economic model points out that both monetary and fiscal policy tools are available. The monetary policy prescription for dealing with recession is straightforward: run an expansionary monetary policy to increase the quantity of money and loans, drive down interest rates, and increase aggregate demand. In a recession, there is usually relatively little danger of inflation taking off, and so even a central bank, with fighting inflation as its top priority, can usually justify some reduction in interest rates.
With regard to fiscal policy, the automatic stabilizers that we discussed in Government Budgets and Fiscal Policy should be allowed to work, even if this means larger budget deficits in times of recession. There is less agreement over whether, in addition to automatic stabilizers, governments in a recession should try to adopt discretionary fiscal policy of additional tax cuts or spending increases. In the case of the Great Recession, the case for this kind of extra-aggressive expansionary fiscal policy is stronger, but for a smaller recession, given the time lags of implementing fiscal policy, countries should use discretionary fiscal policy with caution.
However, the aftermath of the Recession emphasizes that expansionary fiscal and monetary policies do not turn off a recession like flipping a switch turns off a lamp. Even after a recession is officially over, and positive growth has returned, it can take some months—or even a couple of years—before private-sector firms believe the economic climate is healthy enough that they can expand their workforce.
The Natural Rate of Unemployment
Unemployment rates in European nations have typically been higher than in the United States. In 2020, before the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the U.S. unemployment rate was 3.5%, compared with 8.5% in France, 10% in Italy, and 7.1% in Sweden. We can attribute the pattern of generally higher unemployment rates in Europe, which dates back to the 1970s, to the fact that European economies have a higher natural rate of unemployment because they have a greater number of rules and restrictions that discourage firms from hiring and unemployed workers from taking jobs.
Addressing the natural rate of unemployment is straightforward in theory but difficult in practice. Government can play a useful role in providing unemployment and welfare payments, for example, by passing rules about where and when businesses can operate, and assuring that the workplace is safe. However, these well-intentioned laws can, in some cases, become so intrusive that businesses decide to place limits on their hiring.
For example, a law that imposes large costs on a business that tries to fire or lay off workers will mean that businesses try to avoid hiring in the first place, as is the case in France. According to Business Week, “France has 2.4 times as many companies with 49 employees as with 50 ... according to the French labor code, once a company has at least 50 employees inside France, management must create three worker councils, introduce profit sharing, and submit restructuring plans to the councils if the company decides to fire workers for economic reasons.” This labor law essentially limits employment (or raises the natural rate of unemployment).
Undeveloped and Transitioning Labor Markets
Low-income and middle-income countries face employment issues that go beyond unemployment as it is understood in the high-income economies. A substantial number of workers in these economies provide many of their own needs by farming, fishing, or hunting. They barter and trade with others and may take a succession of short-term or one-day jobs, sometimes receiving pay with food or shelter, sometimes with money. They are not “unemployed” in the sense that we use the term in the United States and Europe, but neither are they employed in a regular wage-paying job.
The starting point of economic activity, as we discussed in Welcome to Economics!, is the division of labor, in which workers specialize in certain tasks and trade the fruits of their labor with others. Workers who are not connected to a labor market are often unable to specialize very much. Because these workers are not “officially” employed, they are often not eligible for social benefits like unemployment insurance or old-age payments—if such payments are even available in their country. Helping these workers to become more connected to the labor market and the economy is an important policy goal. Recent research by development economists suggests that one of the key factors in raising people in low-income countries out of the worst kind of poverty is whether they can make a connection to a somewhat regular wage-paying job.
Economist Sir W. Arthur Lewis examined such transitions of labor and the impact on economic development. His core theoretical framework—the dual sector economy—proposes that, essentially, the marginal product of low-skilled workers is greater in the manufacturing sector than it is in the agricultural sector. That’s because most agricultural societies are both mature and have fixed inputs (land, water, and related resources); the marginal product of additional farmers on that land is nearly zero, creating what Lewis termed “surplus workers.” Early-stage manufacturing sectors, however, have great need for low-skilled workers, and can make better use (greater marginal product) of them. Their wages will remain low, but as stated above, the wages are more likely to be consistent and therefore move toward a large-scale transition of the labor force.
We have seen this practically in many nations experiencing a shift in labor, particularly in China. In many regions, it is marked by a level of migration—people leaving rural areas for cities or manufacturing zones. At some point, nations achieve what economists call the Lewis turning point, in which the surplus agricultural labor is fully absorbed into the manufacturing sector. Typically, when this occurs, wages in both agricultural and manufacturing sectors begin to rise in a sustainable manner. Despite massive transformation in the Chinese economy over the past decades, economists dispute whether China has actually reached the Lewis turning point.
Economic transition is not without its downsides. Many manufacturing-focused countries still rely heavily on their agricultural sectors for their own sustenance and as a core part of international trade. As the agricultural sector faces competition from manufacturing, and as people physically leave rural areas, farming economies can suffer downturns and unpredictability. Finally, countries or individual farmers seeking to make up for their missing labor may encourage migration and/or immigration that may cause political or financial conflict.