Types of Unemployment

3 Main Types Plus 6 More - Which Is the Worst?

There are three main types of unemployment: structural, frictional and cyclical. The first two make up the natural unemployment rate. The third rises when demand falls, usually during a recession. Some economists define as many as five additional types of unemployment, such as seasonal and classical.

This article summarizes the nine types of unemployment. Links to more detailed articles are included in case you would like to learn more. Also find out how unemployment is measured, and why some experts say it doesn't capture the real unemployment rate. To learn how U.S. unemployment has fluctuated over time, see Unemployment by Year.

Natural Unemployment

Some unemployment occurs as people try to better their situation. Photo: rubberball/Getty Images

There will always be some level of unemployment, even in a healthy economy.

The lowest level of unemployment was 2.5 percent, right after the Korean War. This was an economic bubble that soon led to a recession. That's why the natural unemployment rate of 4.5 - 5.0 percent is a more healthy indicator.

Natural unemployment consists of two of the three main types of unemployment: frictional and structural. More

Frictional Unemployment

frictional unemployment
Frictional unemployment occurs while finding a new job. (Photo: John Moore/Getty Images)

Frictional unemployment is when workers leave their old jobs but haven't yet found new ones. Most of the time workers leave voluntarily, either because they need to move, or they've saved up enough money to allow them to look for a better job.

Frictional unemployment also occurs when students are looking for that first job, or when mothers are returning to the workforce. It also happens when workers are fired or, in some cases, laid off due to business-specific reasons, such as a plant closure.

Frictional unemployment is short-term and a natural part of the job search process. In fact, frictional unemployment is good for the economy, as it allows workers to move to jobs where they can be more productive. More

Structural Unemployment

structural unemployment
Robots cause structural unemployment among factory workers. (Photo: Bill Pugliano/Getty Images)

Structural unemployment is when shifts occur in the economy that creates a mismatch between the skills workers have and the skills needed by employers.

An example is when an industry fires machinery workers and replaces them with robots. The workers need to learn how to manage the robots that replaced them. Those that don't need retraining for other jobs or will face long-term structural unemployment.

A long recession often creates structural unemployment. If workers stay unemployed for too long, their skills have likely become outdated. Unless they are willing and able to take a lower-level, unskilled job, they may stay unemployed even when the economy recovers. If this happens, structural unemployment leads to a higher rate of natural unemployment.  More

Cyclical Unemployment

Man reading help wanted ads
Cyclical unemployment is caused by recession. Photo: George Doyle/Getty Images

Cyclical unemployment is not part of the natural unemployment rate. It's caused by the contraction phase of the business cycle. That's when demand for goods and services fall dramatically, forcing businesses to lay off large numbers of workers to cut costs.

Cyclical unemployment tends to create more unemployment. This is because the laid-off workers have less money to buy the things they need, further lowering demand.

Government intervention, in the form of expansive monetary policy and even fiscal policy, is usually required to stop the downward spiral. After the stock market crash of 1929, the government did not step in right away. This led to the Great Depression, which lasted 10 years and led to a 25 percent unemployment rate. More

Long-Term Unemployment

After looking for a job for six months, it's hard not to give up. (Photo: PeskyMonkey/Getty Images)

Long-term unemployment occurs for those actively looking for a job for over 27 weeks. The effects are devastating. Many employers overlook someone who's been looking for that long. The emotional and financial costs can be very damaging.  Sadly, a higher percentage of the unemployed fall into this category than before the crisis or in prior recessions. More

Real Unemployment

real unemployment
The real unemployment rate includes some part-time workers.(Photo: Tim Boyle/Getty Images)

Real unemployment is not one of the types of unemployment, but it's a term you need to understand. Many people argue that instead of the “official” unemployment rate, we should use an alternate rate calculated by the BLS. This rate is called the “real” unemployment rate, and it uses a broader definition of unemployment. For the real unemployment rate, the BLS includes these three categories:

  1. Marginally attached are people who haven't looked for work in the past four weeks, but have looked within the past year. This category also includes:
  2. Discouraged workers are those who have given up looking for work.
  3. Part-time workers who would like a full-time job.

Some people argue that the real unemployment rate during the 2008 recession was as high as the 25 percent rate during the Great Depression. But this is not true. The "real" U-6 rate reached 17.5 percent on October 2009, the height of unemployment in the great recession.  More

Seasonal Unemployment

Some sources include seasonal unemployment as a fourth type of unemployment. It is part of natural unemployment.

Like its name says, seasonal unemployment results from regular changes in the season. Workers affected by seasonal unemployment include resort workers, ski instructors and ice cream vendors. It could also include people who harvest crops. Construction workers are laid off in the winter, in most parts of the country. School employees can also be considered seasonal workers.

The BLS does not measure seasonal unemployment. Instead, it adjusts its unemployment estimates to rule out seasonal factors. This gives a more accurate estimate of the unemployment rate.

Classical Unemployment

unemployed worker
Classical unemployment results from artificially high wages. Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Classical unemployment is also known as “real wage unemployment” or “induced unemployment.” It’s when wages are higher than the laws of supply and demand would normally dictate. It usually occurs in three situations:

  1. Unions negotiate higher salaries and benefits.
  2. Long-term contracts set a wage that has become too high due to a recession.
  3. The government sets a minimum wage that's too high.

The result is that companies must pay more per employee, so they can afford fewer employees. Those that are laid off are victims of classical unemployment.


Underemployed workers are usually underpaid. Photo: Getty Images

Underemployed workers have jobs, but they aren't working to their full capacity or skill level. This includes those who are working part-time but would prefer full-time jobs and those who are working in jobs where they aren't being utilized. Underemployment is often caused by cyclical unemployment. During a recession, unemployed workers will take what they can to make ends meet.

Some definitions of underemployment include unemployment. Others include segments of society that are not included in the standard definition of unemployment but are counted in the real unemployment rate. Therefore, an understanding of underemployment is helpful to get the big picture of unemployment. More