Charts of the day: The rise in structural unemployment

By Felix Salmon
June 20, 2011
new paper seeking to unentangle cyclical from structural unemployment, would suggest that it possibly is:

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Is this jobless recovery a peculiarly American phenomenon? This chart, from a new paper seeking to unentangle cyclical from structural unemployment, would suggest that it possibly is:

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I find these numbers quite shocking: after all, it’s hardly as though countries like the UK and Portugal have emerged from the recession unscathed. But the US increase in unemployment over the course of the recession was more than double the increase anywhere else.

That said, the US has historically has a much lower rate of structural unemployment than most of these other countries: the level of unemployment which is baked in to economic reality, before cyclical factors move it temporarily up and down. And what I fear is that the Great Recession has moved the US towards European levels of structural employment, without any kind of Euro-style social safety net.

Here are the charts for what’s happened to structural unemployment in the US. The red lines are the official employment rate; the blue lines are the structural employment rate. The first chart shows the unemployment rate overall; the next four break it down into people unemployed for less than five weeks; people unemployed for between five and 14 weeks; people unemployed for between 15 and 26 weeks; and the long-term unemployed who have been out of work for more than six months.

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What’s going on here is pretty clear. For short-term unemployment, little has changed: the structural rate has been around 2% for decades. But look at any of these charts and they show structural unemployment at an all-time high, with the situation getting much worse the longer the duration of unemployment. Overall, the structural rate of unemployment is now more than 8%, which means that we’ll only dip below that level temporarily, during cyclical upturns.

Measuring structural unemployment is, of course, more of an art than a science, and I’d be astonished if any economist agreed with all of the figures in this paper. That said, it’s entirely intuitive to believe that structural unemployment rose significantly over the course of the recession, and that it’s now painfully high. And that the Obama Administration is, to a first approximation, doing absolutely nothing to address this crisis head-on.

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