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By the end of this section, you will be able to:

  • Explain historical patterns of unemployment in the U.S.
  • Identify trends of unemployment based on demographics
  • Evaluate global unemployment rates

Let’s look at how unemployment rates have changed over time and how various groups of people are affected by unemployment differently.

The historical u.s. unemployment rate

[link] shows the historical pattern of U.S. unemployment since 1955.

The u.s. unemployment rate, 1955–2015

The line graph reveals that, over the past 60-plus years, unemployment rates have continued to fluctuate with the highest rates of unemployment occurring around 1982 and 2010.
The U.S. unemployment rate moves up and down as the economy moves in and out of recessions. But over time, the unemployment rate seems to return to a range of 4% to 6%. There does not seem to be a long-term trend toward the rate moving generally higher or generally lower. (Source: Federal Reserve Economic Data (FRED) https://research.stlouisfed.org/fred2/series/LRUN64TTUSA156S0)

As we look at this data, several patterns stand out:

  1. Unemployment rates do fluctuate over time. During the deep recessions of the early 1980s and of 2007–2009, unemployment reached roughly 10%. For comparison, during the Great Depression of the 1930s, the unemployment rate reached almost 25% of the labor force.
  2. Unemployment rates in the late 1990s and into the mid-2000s were rather low by historical standards. The unemployment rate was below 5% from 1997 to 2000 and near 5% during almost all of 2006–2007. The previous time unemployment had been less than 5% for three consecutive years was three decades earlier, from 1968 to 1970.
  3. The unemployment rate never falls all the way to zero. Indeed, it never seems to get below 3%—and it stays that low only for very short periods. (Reasons why this is the case are discussed later in this chapter.)
  4. The timing of rises and falls in unemployment matches fairly well with the timing of upswings and downswings in the overall economy. During periods of recession    and depression    , unemployment is high. During periods of economic growth, unemployment tends to be lower.
  5. No significant upward or downward trend in unemployment rates is apparent. This point is especially worth noting because the U.S. population nearly quadrupled from 76 million in 1900 to over 314 million by 2012. Moreover, a higher proportion of U.S. adults are now in the paid workforce, because women have entered the paid labor force in significant numbers in recent decades. Women composed 18% of the paid workforce in 1900 and nearly half of the paid workforce in 2012. But despite the increased number of workers, as well as other economic events like globalization and the continuous invention of new technologies, the economy has provided jobs without causing any long-term upward or downward trend in unemployment rates.

Unemployment rates by group

Unemployment is not distributed evenly across the U.S. population. [link] shows unemployment rates broken down in various ways: by gender, age, and race/ethnicity.

Unemployment rate by demographic group

Graph a shows the trends in unemployment rates by gender for the year 1972 to 2014. In 1972 the graph starts out at 6.6% for females. It jumps to 9.3% in 1975 for females, gradually goes back down until 2009, when it rises to 8.1%. It gradually lowers to 6.1% in 2014 for females. For males, it starts out at  around 5% in 1972, goes up and down periodically, and ends at 6.3% in 2014.  Graph b shows the trends in unemployment rates for women, by age for the year 1972 to 2014. In 1972, the graph starts out around 9% for women aged 20–24, goes up to 13.6% in 1975, and ends at 11.2% in 2014. In 1972, the graph starts out at 3.7% for women aged 25–54, jumps to 6.4% in 1975, and ends at around 5% in 2014. In 1972, the graph starts out around 3% for women aged 55 and over. It remains between 3–5% until 2010, when it jumps to 7%. In 2014, it drops down to 4.4%.  Graph c shows the trends in unemployment rates by race and ethnicity for the year 1972 to 2014. In 1972, the graph starts out at 10.4% for blacks, rises to nearly 15% in 1975, rises even more in 1983 to 19.5%, and ends up around 11% in 2014. In 1972, the graph starts out around 7% for Hispanics, rises to around 12% in 1975, and ends at 7.4% in 2014. In 1972, the graph starts out around 5% for whites, jumps to nearly 8% in 1975, jumps again to nearly 8.5% in 1982, and ends up at around 5% in 2014.
(a) By gender, 1972–2014. Unemployment rates for men used to be lower than unemployment rates for women, but in recent decades, the two rates have been very close, often with the unemployment rate for men somewhat higher. (b) By age, 1972–2014. Unemployment rates are highest for the very young and become lower with age. (c) By race and ethnicity, 1972–2014. Although unemployment rates for all groups tend to rise and fall together, the unemployment rate for whites has been lower than the unemployment rate for blacks and Hispanics in recent decades. (Source: www.bls.gov)

Questions & Answers

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Source:  OpenStax, Principles of macroeconomics for ap® courses. OpenStax CNX. Aug 24, 2015 Download for free at http://legacy.cnx.org/content/col11864/1.2
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