What Is Unemployment?

There are three main types of unemployment: cyclical, structural, and frictional.1 Cyclical unemployment is, unfortunately, the most familiar. It occurs during a recession. The second two—structural and frictional—make up the natural unemployment rate.

This article summarizes nine types of unemployment. In addition to the four listed above, it explains long-term, seasonal, and classical unemployment. It also explains the terms “real unemployment” and “underemployment.”

What Is Unemployment?
The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) defines unemployment very specifically. To count as unemployed, out-of-work employees must have these three qualities:

They aren’t working, even part time or temporarily.
They are available to work.
They actively looked for work in the past four weeks.2
This last point is important and often controversial. If someone has stopped looking for work, the BLS no longer counts them as being part of the labor force or as unemployed. But it does report them separately under the category of “marginally attached to the labor force.” These are people who look for work in the past 12 months but not in the past four weeks.3

To calculate the unemployment rate, divide the number of unemployed by the number in the labor force.4

Cyclical Unemployment
Cyclical unemployment is caused by the contraction phase of the business cycle. That’s when the demand for goods and services falls dramatically. It forces businesses to lay off large numbers of workers to cut costs.

Cyclical unemployment creates more unemployment. The laid-off workers have less money to buy the goods and services they need. That further lowers demand.

In the form of expansive monetary policy and fiscal policy, government intervention is required to stop the downward spiral. After the stock market crash of 1929, the government did not step in right away. This delay led to the Great Depression, which lasted 10 years and led to a 25% unemployment rate.5

Frictional Unemployment
Frictional unemployment occurs when workers leave their old jobs but haven’t yet found new ones.6 Most of the time, workers leave voluntarily, either because they need to move or have saved enough money to allow them to look for a better job.

Frictional unemployment also occurs when students are looking for that first job or when mothers are returning to the workforce. It also happens when workers are fired or, in some cases, laid off due to business-specific reasons, such as a plant closure.

Frictional unemployment is short-term and a natural part of the job search process. In fact, frictional unemployment is good for the economy, as it allows workers to move to jobs where they can be more productive.

Structural Unemployment
Structural unemployment exists when shifts occur in the economy that create a mismatch between the skills workers have and the skills needed by employers.6

An example of this is an industry’s replacement of machinery workers with robots. Workers now need to learn how to manage the robots that replaced them. Those that don’t learn need retraining for other jobs or face long-term structural unemployment.

A long recession often creates structural unemployment. If workers stay unemployed for too long, their skills have likely become outdated. Unless they are willing and able to take a lower-level, unskilled job, they may stay unemployed even when the economy recovers. If this happens, structural unemployment leads to a higher rate of natural unemployment.

Natural Unemployment
Natural unemployment consists of two of the three main types of unemployment: frictional and structural. It explains why there will always be some level of unemployment, even in a healthy economy. People will always be changing jobs, and sometimes they leave a job before finding a new one. There will always be some people with skills that are no longer needed.

The lowest level of unemployment was 2.5%, right after the Korean War.7 Employers had a hard time finding workers. It occurred because the economy was in a bubble that soon burst and led to a recession. A healthy economy will have a natural unemployment rate of 4.5%-5%.

Long-Term Unemployment
Long-term unemployment occurs for those actively looking for a job for over 27 weeks.8 The effects are devastating. Many employers overlook someone who’s been looking for that long. The emotional and financial costs can be very damaging, according to a Pew Research Survey.9 For example, 38% have lost self-respect. Almost 30% said their new job was worse than their old one. Sadly, 43% said they would have a hard time achieving their career goals.

Real Unemployment
Real unemployment is not one of the types of unemployment, but it’s an important term to understand. Many people argue that instead of the “official” unemployment rate, we should use an alternate rate. The Bureau of Labor Statistics calls it the “U-6” rate. Others call it the “real” unemployment rate because it uses a broader definition of unemployment.

It includes these two categories:

Marginally attached workers: They haven’t looked for work in the past four weeks, but have looked within the past year. Some of them become discouraged workers who have given up looking for work.
Part-time workers: They would like a full-time job but can only find part-time employment.
Seasonal Unemployment
You might also hear of seasonal unemployment as another type of unemployment. As its name suggests, seasonal unemployment results from regular changes in the season. Workers affected by seasonal unemployment include resort workers, ski instructors, and ice cream vendors. It could also include people who harvest crops. Construction workers are laid off in the winter in most parts of the country. School employees can also be considered seasonal workers.

The BLS does not measure seasonal unemployment. Instead, it adjusts its unemployment estimates to rule out seasonal factors.10 This adjustment gives a more accurate estimate of the unemployment rate.

Classical Unemployment
Classical unemployment is also known as “real wage unemployment” or “induced unemployment.” It’s when wages are so high that employers can’t hire all the available workers.11 In other words, wages are higher than the laws of supply and demand would normally dictate.

It occurs in one of these three situations:

Unions negotiate higher salaries and benefits.
Long-term contracts set a wage that has become too high due to a recession.
The government sets a minimum wage that’s too high.12
The result is that companies must pay more in wages per employee. So, they can afford fewer employees. Those that are laid off are victims of classical unemployment.

Underemployed workers have jobs, but they aren’t working to their full capacity or skill level.13 This category includes those who are working part-time but would prefer full-time jobs. It also includes those who are working in jobs where they aren’t being utilized. Underemployment is often caused by cyclical unemployment. During a recession, underemployed workers will take what they can to make ends meet.

Some definitions of underemployment include unemployment. Others include segments of society that are not included in the standard definition of unemployment but are counted in the real unemployment rate. Awareness of underemployment helps you understand the big picture of unemployment.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
How do you reduce unemployment?
Effective strategies and policies for reducing unemployment depend heavily on which type of unemployment you’re targeting. For instance, reducing structural employment requires training programs to provide new skills for displaced workers. Mitigating cyclical unemployment, on the other hand, often depends on fiscal and monetary interventions from the government.14

Who pays for unemployment?
Unemployment is funded by state and federal taxes on employers that go toward unemployment insurance programs. State taxes vary, but the federal unemployment tax is 6% of the first $7,000 of each employee’s wages each year.15

How long can someone stay on unemployment?
The time limit for collecting unemployment benefits varies by state. Most states provide benefits for up to 26 weeks, but nine states provide less, and two provide more.

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