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The natural rate of unemployment in europe

By the standards of other high-income economies, the natural rate of unemployment in the U.S. economy appears relatively low. Through good economic years and bad, many European economies have had unemployment rates hovering near 10%, or even higher, since the 1970s. European rates of unemployment have been higher not because recessions in Europe have been deeper, but rather because the conditions underlying supply and demand for labor have been different in Europe, in a way that has created a much higher natural rate of unemployment.

Many European countries have a combination of generous welfare and unemployment benefits, together with nests of rules that impose additional costs on businesses when they hire. In addition, many countries have laws that require firms to give workers months of notice before laying them off and to provide substantial severance or retraining packages after laying them off. The legally required notice before laying off a worker can be more than three months in Spain, Germany, Denmark, and Belgium, and the legally required severance package can be as high as a year’s salary or more in Austria, Spain, Portugal, Italy, and Greece. Such laws will surely discourage laying off or firing current workers. But when companies know that it will be difficult to fire or lay off workers, they also become hesitant about hiring in the first place.

The typically higher levels of unemployment in many European countries in recent years, which have prevailed even when economies are growing at a solid pace, are attributable to the fact that the sorts of laws and regulations that lead to a high natural rate of unemployment are much more prevalent in Europe than in the United States.

A preview of policies to fight unemployment

The Government Budgets and Fiscal Policy and Macroeconomic Policy Around the World chapters provide a detailed discussion of how to fight unemployment, when these policies can be discussed in the context of the full array of macroeconomic goals and frameworks for analysis. But even at this preliminary stage, it is useful to preview the main issues concerning policies to fight unemployment.

The remedy for unemployment will depend on the diagnosis. Cyclical unemployment is a short-term problem, caused because the economy is in a recession. Thus, the preferred solution will be to avoid or minimize recessions. As Government Budgets and Fiscal Policy discusses, this policy can be enacted by stimulating the overall buying power in the economy, so that firms perceive that sales and profits are possible, which makes them eager to hire.

Dealing with the natural rate of unemployment is trickier. There is not much to be done about the fact that in a market-oriented economy, firms will hire and fire workers. Nor is there much to be done about how the evolving age structure of the economy, or unexpected shifts in productivity, will affect the natural rate of unemployment for a time. However, as the example of high ongoing unemployment rates for many European countries illustrates, government policy clearly can affect the natural rate of unemployment that will persist even when GDP is growing.

When a government enacts policies that will affect workers or employers, it must examine how these policies will affect the information and incentives employees and employers have to seek each other out. For example, the government may have a role to play in helping some of the unemployed with job searches. The design of government programs that offer assistance to unemployed workers and protections to employed workers may need to be rethought so that they will not unduly discourage the supply of labor. Similarly, rules that make it difficult for businesses to begin or to expand may need to be redesigned so that they will not unduly discourage the demand for labor. The message is not that all laws affecting labor markets should be repealed, but only that when such laws are enacted, a society that cares about unemployment will need to consider the tradeoffs involved.

The mysterious case of the missing candidates

After reading the chapter you might think the current unemployment conundrum may be due to structural unemployment. Indeed, there is a mismatch between the skills employers are seeking and the skills the unemployed possess. But Peter Cappelli has a slightly different view on this—it is called the purple squirrel. The what?

In human resource parlance, a purple squirrel is a job candidate who is a perfect fit for all of the many different responsibilities of a position. A purple squirrel candidate could step into a multi-faceted position with no training and permit the firm to higher fewer people because the worker is so versatile. During the Great Recession, Human Resources (HR) positions were reduced. This means today’s hiring managers are drafting job descriptions and requirements without much, if any HR feedback. “It turns out it's typically the case that employers' requirements are crazy, they're not paying enough, or their applicant screening is so rigid that nobody gets through,” Cappelli stated in a 2012 Knowledge@Wharton interview about the findings in his book, Why Good People Can’t Find Jobs: Chasing After the Purple Squirrel . In short, managers are searching for “purple squirrels” when what they really need are just versatile workers. There really is not a shortage of “normal squirrels”—candidates who are versatile workers. The managers just cannot find them because their requirements, screening processes, and compensation will filter out all but the “purple” ones.

Key concepts and summary

The natural rate of unemployment is the rate of unemployment that would be caused by the economic, social, and political forces in the economy even when the economy is not in a recession. These factors include the frictional unemployment that occurs when people are put out of work for a time by the shifts of a dynamic and changing economy and any laws concerning conditions of hiring and firing 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.


As the baby boomer generation retires, what should happen to wages and employment? Can you show this graphically?

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Bureau of Labor Statistics. Labor Force Statistics from the Current Population Survey. Accessed March 6, 2015 http://data.bls.gov/timeseries/LNS14000000.

Cappelli, P. (20 June 2012). “Why Good People Can’t Get Jobs: Chasing After the Purple Squirrel.” http://knowledge.wharton.upenn.edu/article.cfm?articleid=3027.

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