The Historical U.S. Unemployment Rate
Figure shows the historical pattern of U.S. unemployment since 1955.
As we look at this data, several patterns stand out:
- 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 1930s Great Depression, the unemployment rate reached almost 25% of the labor force.
- 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, and 5% or slightly less from September 2015 through January 2017 (the latest date for which data are available as of this writing). The previous time unemployment had been less than 5% for three consecutive years was three decades earlier, from 1968 to 1970.
- The unemployment rate never falls all the way to zero. It almost never seems to get below 3%—and it stays that low only for very short periods. (We discuss reasons why this is the case later in this chapter.)
- The timing of rises and falls in unemployment matches fairly well with the timing of upswings and downswings in the overall economy, except that unemployment tends to lag changes in economic activity, and especially so during upswings of the economy following a recession. During periods of recession and depression, unemployment is high. During periods of economic growth, unemployment tends to be lower.
- No significant upward or downward trend in unemployment rates is apparent. This point is especially worth noting because the U.S. population more than quadrupled from 76 million in 1900 to over 324 million by 2017. 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 comprised 18% of the paid workforce in 1900 and nearly half of the paid workforce in 2017. However, 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.