Unemployment Definition

Not Everyone Who Is Jobless Is Unemployed

Unemployment is defined by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics as people who do not have a job, have actively looked for work in the past four weeks, and currently are available for work. Also, people who were temporarily laid off and were waiting to be called back to that job are included in unemployment statistics. The BLS reports this in its U-3 report, a part of the monthly jobs report.

The BLS measures unemployment through monthly household surveys called the Current Population Survey. It has been conducted every month since 1940 as part of the government's response to the Great Depression. It has been modified several times since then and experienced a major redesign in 1994. That included a revamping of the questionnaire, the use of computer-assisted interviewing, and revisions to some of the labor force concepts.

This infographic explains how the Bureau of Labor Statistics defines unemployment. There is text on the left side explaining the definition. On the right side, a dark-skinned man sits at a laptop applying for jobs, while a dog sits under his table.
Image by Daniel Fishel © The Balance 2019

The BLS does not count everyone who is jobless as unemployed. It excludes those who have not looked for work within the past four weeks. The BLS also removes them from the labor force. Most people leave the labor force when they retire, go to school, have a disability that keeps them from working, or have family responsibilities. The BLS doesn't count people who would like to work but aren't actively looking for work.

The BLS does track those people, though, in the U-6 unemployment rate. Some people call this the real unemployment rate. It includes those who have looked for work within the past 12 months but not within the past four weeks. The BLS calls them "marginally attached to the labor force." A subset of the marginally attached is called discouraged workers. They have given up looking because they don't think there are jobs out there for them.

The current unemployment rate was 13.1% in June 2020. It had skyrocketed to 14.7% in April. In March, it had been between 3.5% and 4.5%, the natural rate of unemployment

The Congressional Budget Offices forecasts that unemployment will average 14% in the second quarter.

How the BLS Measures Employment

For employment statistics, the BLS includes anyone 16 or older who worked any hours during the past week. They can be paid employees or self-employed. They can be unpaid workers in a family-owned business as long as they work at least 15 hours a week. The BLS also includes people who didn't work during the week if they were temporarily absent due to vacation, illness, or other reasons.

The BLS doesn't count residents of any institution as employees. That includes prisons, jails, mental facilities, and homes for the aged. It also does not count those on active military duty. To be counted, workers must be members of the U.S. civilian non-institutional population.

How Unemployment Fits Into the Big Picture

The BLS uses specific terms and definitions to summarize how unemployment fits into the population.

Population includes the civilian noninstitutional population, active duty military, and the institutional population.

The civilian noninstitutional population includes the labor force and those not in the labor force.

The labor force includes those who are employed and those who are unemployed.

Those not in the labor force includes three groups:

  • People who would like work, but haven't looked for it in the last month. They include the "marginally attached," who did look in the past year. They had school, ill health, or transportation problems that kept them from looking in the past month. Others are "discouraged workers." They don't believe there are any jobs.
  • Groups who aren't looking for work. They include students, homemakers, and retired people.
  • Anyone younger than 16 is not included in the labor force, even if they are working. 

How Unemployment Statistics Are Used

The BLS uses its definition of unemployment to calculate the unemployment rate formula, which is Unemployment Rate = Unemployed / Civilian Labor Force. 

The BLS also uses this definition of unemployment to calculate the Labor Force Participation Rate.

The government, central banks, and businesses use unemployment statistics to gauge the health of the economy. If the unemployment rate gets too high, at around 6% or more, the government will try to create jobs. The Federal Reserve will first step in with expansionary monetary policy and lower the federal funds rate.

If this doesn't work, the federal government will use expansionary fiscal policy. It can directly create jobs by hiring employees for public works projects. It can indirectly create jobs by stimulating demand with extended unemployment benefits. These benefits aid the unemployed until they can find jobs. These are some of the unemployment solutions the government has at its disposal.

You may think that unemployment can't get too low, but it can. Even in a healthy economy, there always should be a natural rate of unemployment of 3.5% to 4.5%. Some people move before they get a new job. Others are getting retrained for a better job. Many have just started looking for work and are waiting until they find the right job.

Even when the unemployment rate is in the natural range, it's difficult for companies to expand. They have a hard time finding good workers.

Causes of Unemployment

Nationally, unemployment is caused when the economy slows down and businesses are forced to cut costs by reducing payroll expenses. The 2008 financial crisis created the worst unemployment since the 1980s. The history of recessions reveals that they always cause an increase in unemployment rates.

Competition in particular industries or companies also can cause unemployment. Advanced technology, such as computers or robots, cause unemployment by replacing worker tasks with machines. 

Jobs outsourcing is a significant cause of unemployment. It's especially common in technologycall centers, and human resources.

Consequences of Unemployment

The consequences of unemployment for individuals are financially and often emotionally destructive. The consequences for the economy also can be harmful if unemployment rises above 5% or 6%. When that many people are unemployed, the economy loses one of its key drivers of growth: consumer spending. Quite simply, workers have less money to spend until they find another job.

If high national unemployment continues, it can deepen a recession or even cause a depression.

Lower consumer spending from unemployed workers reduces business revenue, which forces companies to cut more payroll to reduce their costs. It can become a downward spiral very quickly. 

One of the consequences of the Great Recession was that workers were unemployed for a long time. These long-term unemployed were out of work and looking for more than six months.

If they've been out of work even longer, their job skills may no longer match the requirements of the new jobs being offered. That's called structural unemployment. Many of them are 55 or older. They may not be able to get a good job again, despite laws prohibiting age discrimination. They may get part-time or low-paying entry jobs to make ends meet, then become unemployed again until they can take early Social Security benefits at age 62. For this reason, many economists think the recession permanently increased the natural rate of unemployment.

The Bottom Line

The BLS has its own definition of what the labor force should comprise. Not all of the jobless are considered unemployed. Only those 16 years and older who don’t have a job and have been actively looking for one over the past month are unemployed. The employed may be paid or unpaid as long as they have at least a 15-hour workweek.

Those not counted as part of the labor force are:

  • The jobless that have stopped looking for work for more than four weeks
  • People living in institutions such as prisons, senior homes, or mental hospitals
  • Those on active military duty
  • Those not looking for work such as students and retirees
  • Those younger than 16 years of age, even if working

The BLS uses the unemployment rate formula and looks into the labor force participation rate to determine the rate of unemployment. If the unemployment rate goes higher than 6%, the government may decide to use expansionary fiscal policies to create more jobs.

High unemployment rates can reflect economic distress but very low ones can be symptomatic of an overheated economy.

The main causes of U.S. unemployment point to:

  • Recessions
  • Replacement of jobs by technology
  • Jobs outsourcing

Article Sources

  1. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. “Labor Force Statistics from the Current Population Survey,” Accessed June 5, 2020.

  2. Congressional Budget Office. "CBO’s Current Projections of Output, Employment, and Interest Rates and a Preliminary Look at Federal Deficits for 2020 and 2021."July 2, 2020.

  3. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. "Employment Situation Summary." Accessed July 2, 2020.