Economics » Unemployment » Patterns of Unemployment

The Historical U.S. Unemployment Rate

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

This figure 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)

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 tutorial.)
  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.

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