This article is about unemployment in the U.S. To read more about unemployment in other countries, see Unemployment (disambiguation).
Unemployment and employment are closely watched economic indicators. A low rate of unemployment often raises inflation fears, due to potential labor shortages. High unemployment raises fears of recession. Strong job growth means prosperity. Job losses, recession. The chart to the right shows the annual unemployment rate from 1948 through 2007.
In looking at unemployment and employment there is ample room for confusion. Two separate and distinct measures of unemployment are often reported in the media, as well as two separate and distinct measures of employment. Each indicator has value, but must be understood correctly. All four are reported by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).
The unemployed are defined by the BLS as “persons aged 16 years and older who had no employment during the reference week, were available for work, except for temporary illness, and had made specific efforts to find employment sometime during the 4-week period ending with the reference week.”
The unemployment rate is the number of unemployed as a percent of the labor force. The labor force consists of employed and unemployed persons. It is sometimes called the “civilian labor force” because it excludes people in the armed forces.
The size of the labor force varies over time due to economic conditions and changes in the number of working age people. When the economy is strong more people are apt to look for work and the size of the labor force swells. This could drive up the unemployment rate even when employment is growing. On the other hand, when jobs are scarce some people give up looking for work, which can result in a decline in the unemployment rate even as the economy weakens.
As the Baby Boom generation retires the size of the labor force might shrink, although a strong flow of young people into the labor force (the “Echo Boom” generation) and immigrants have the potential to keep the size of the labor force high enough. Many Baby Boomers may also delay the age at which they retire.
Illegal immigration is a complicating factor in the estimation of the number of employed and unemployed in this country. This “shadow labor force” is not well accounted for.
The two surveys show different levels of employment and employment growth and have on occasion been contradictory due to the different samples and survey methodologies.