7 Causes of Unemployment

Causes of unemployment
People have their resumes reviewed during the Arizona Workforce Connection Career Expo at the Arizona State Fair Grounds on March 31, 2010 in Phoenix, Arizona. Photo: Joshua Lott/Getty Images

There are seven causes of unemployment. Four cause frictional unemployment. This type of unemployment is when employees leave their job to find a better one. Two cause structural unemployment. That's when workers' skills or income requirements no longer match the jobs available. The seventh cause leads to cyclical unemployment.

Frictional and structural unemployment occur even in a healthy economy.

The natural rate of unemployment is between 4.7 percent and 5.8 percent, according to the Federal Reserve

The Bureau of Labor Statistics defines unemployed people as those who are jobless and have actively looked for work in the past four weeks. If they don't keep looking, the BLS doesn't count them in the labor force.

Four Causes of Frictional Unemployment

One reason for unemployment is voluntary. Some of the unemployed have saved enough money so they can quit unfulfilling jobs. They have the luxury to search until they find just the right opportunity.

The second cause is when workers must move for unrelated reasons. They are unemployed until they find a position in the new town.

The third reason is when new workers enter the workforce. That includes students who graduate from high school, college or any higher degree program. They look for a job that fits their new skills and qualifications.

That's a primary reason for youth unemployment.

The fourth reason is when job seekers re-enter the workforce. These are people who went through a period in their lives when they stopped looking for work. They could have stopped working to raise children, get married or care for elderly relatives.

These four situations are an unavoidable part of the job search process.

The good news is that frictional unemployment is usually voluntary and short-term.

Two Causes of Structural Unemployment

Structural unemployment is neither voluntary nor short-term. These next two causes usually lead to long-term unemployment. 

The fifth cause is advances in technology. That's when computers or robots replace workers. Most of these workers need more training before they can get a new job in their field.

The sixth cause is job outsourcing. That's when a company moves its manufacturing or call centers to another country. Labor costs are cheaper in countries with a lower cost of living. That occurred in many states after NAFTA was signed in 1994. Many manufacturing jobs moved to Mexico. It also occurred once workers in China and India gained the skills needed by American companies. 

What Causes Cyclical Unemployment?

The seventh reason for unemployment is when are fewer jobs than applicants. The technical term is demand-deficient unemployment. When it happens during the recession phase of the business cycle, it's called cyclical unemployment. 

Low consumer demand creates cyclical unemployment. Companies lose too much profit when demand fall. If they don't expect sales to pick up anytime soon, they must lay off workers.

The higher unemployment causes consumer demand to drop even more, which is why it’s cyclical. It results in large-scale unemployment. Examples include the financial crisis of 2008 and the Great Depression of 1929.

Does Raising the Minimum Wage Cause Demand-Deficit Unemployment

Demand-deficient unemployment sometimes occurs when wages are too high. That's one of the arguments against higher minimum wages. Critics argue that when businesses are forced to pay a higher salary per person, they must let other workers go. In some price-sensitive industries, that's true. But most companies can pass the cost onto their customers. (Source: "Structural/Frictional and Demand-Deficit Unemployment in Local Labor Markets," National Bureau of Economic Research, July 1988.)

Not All Causes of Joblessness Create Unemployment

If someone gives up looking for work, on the other hand, the BLS does not count them in the unemployment rate.

 If someone retires, goes back to school or leaves the work force to take care of children or other family members, that is not unemployment. That's because they no longer look for work. Even if they would prefer a job, the BLS doesn't count them as unemployed unless they looked in the past month.

People who have searched in the past year, but not the past month, are called marginally unemployed. They are included in the BLS’s “real unemployment rate.” Some people say the government undercounts unemployment by reporting the official rate, rather than the “real” rate.