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Unemployment is a macroeconomic phenomenon that directly affects people. When a member of a family is unemployed, the family feels it in lost income and a reduced standard of living. There is little in the realm of macroeconomics more feared by the average consumer than unemployment. Understanding what unemployment really is and how it works is important both for the economist and for the consumer, as it is often discussed.

The Costs of Unemployment

Because most people rely on their income to maintain their standard of living, the loss of a job will often directly threaten to reduce that standard of living. This creates a number of emotional problems for the worker and the family. In terms of society, unemployment is harmful as well. Unemployed workers represent wasted production capability. This means that the economy is putting out less goods and services than it could be producing. It also means that there is less money being spent by consumers, which has the potential to lead to more unemployment, beginning a cycle. However, in general, while unemployment is harmful for individuals, there are some circumstances in which unemployment is both natural and beneficial for the economy as a whole.

Okun's law

We know that when there is unemployment, the economy is not producing at full output since there are people who are not working. But, what exactly is the relationship between unemployment and national output or GDP? How much would we expect the GDP to increase if unemployment fell 1%? These are useful and important questions to ask when trying to understand the costs of unemployment.

An economist named Arthur Okun looked at the relationship between unemployment and national output over the past 50 years. He noticed a general pattern and stated an equation to explain it. His equation, Okun's Law, relates the percentage change in real GDP to changes in the unemployment rate. In particular, the equation states:

% change in real GDP = 3% - 2 x (change in unemployment rate)
This equation basically says that real GDP grows at about 3% per year when unemployment is normal. For every point above normal that unemployment moves, GDP growth falls by 2%. Similarly, for every point below normal that unemployment moves, GDP growth rises by 2%. This equation, while not exact, provides a good estimate of the effects of unemployment upon output.

For example, let's say a country had an unemployment rate of 8% in one year and 6% in the next. Using Okun's law, it would be hypothesized that the percentage change in the real GDP would be 3% - 2 * (-2%) = 7%. Because 2% fewer people were unemployed the nation produced 7% more output.

Types of Unemployment

While unemployment is a general term that describes people who wish to work but cannot find jobs, there are actually a number of specific types of unemployment. Three particular types of unemployment stand out as most important, frictional unemployment, structural unemployment, and cyclically unemployment

  1. Some people who are not working are simply between jobs. This may be the result of being hired elsewhere or simply relocating. They are not actively searching for a job, but instead just waiting to begin their next job. This is called frictional unemployment because these workers are literally between jobs.
  2. Other workers have a mismatch of skills for the job or geographic area that they want to work. If a welder is displaced by a robot or if a nuclear engineer is simply no longer needed in a lab, these workers become unemployed. This type of unemployment is called structural unemployment because the structure of the job is incompatible with the skills offered by the worker.
  3. Finally, some workers may be laid off as the economy slows down. These workers possess the necessary skills, but there is simply not enough demand for their firms to continue to employ them. This type of unemployment is called cyclical unemployment because it is attributable to changes in output due to the cycles of the economy.