Feeling 1982: Fifteen million unemployed

Another BLS employment report, more bad news.  In every month since April 2008, the U.S. unemployment rate has either risen or held steady.  It’s currently at 9.5%, the highest since late 1982, and 14.7 million people are unemployment (or 15.1 million if one uses the non-seasonally-adjusted data, i.e., the data that count the actual unemployed without filtering for seasonal fluctuations).  For adult men, the unemployment rate is an even 10%. Nonfarm payroll employment fell by 467,000, about 100,000 worse than economists had expected.

U.S. unemployment rate, 1980-2009

U.S. unemployment rate, 1980-2009

It gets worse still. Think of 5% unemployment as the benchmark, as many economists consider 5% to be the “natural” rate of unemployment, i.e., about the lowest unemployment rate that the economy can sustain without generating higher inflation.  The unemployment rate has been that low or better quite often in recent years, including about four years in 1997-2001 and about three years in 2005-2008 (click chart to see it properly).  Right now, however, 5 percent (actually 5.1%) is the long-term unemployment rate, i.e., the number of people unemployed 15 weeks or longer divided by the total labor force.

And, to mount a hobby-horse once again, these official unemployment rates minimize the extent of the problem, because they don’t include discouraged job-seekers who’ve given up looking for work (and are technically no longer part of the “labor force”) and people involuntarily working part time instead of full time.  The all-inclusive U-6 unemployment rate is now 16.5% (or 16.8% if not seasonally adjusted).

If there’s a nugget of good news in the new unemployment data, I haven’t noticed it.  But if 1982 is any guide, we might at least get some good music out of it.  After all, the wretched job market of the early ’80s gave us Bruce Springsteen’s monumental Nebraska


(this too) and Billy Bragg’s “To Have and Have Not,”

among others.  I haven’t heard a current-day equivalent, though Drive-by Truckers’ “Putting People on the Moon” (2004), from the perspective of a guy who’s felt the Silent Depression of the past three decades first hand, will do just fine.

Title inspired by a Josh Rouse song.

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2 Responses to “Feeling 1982: Fifteen million unemployed”

  1. Alex Says:

    Thanks for the tunes–from an unemployed, overqualified career jumper. It’s bleak out here, but I’m hopeful.

    (Love that Billy Bragg track, saw him perform that live in 1984 in Boston, had no idea who he was–yet–but he was the best act on a bill he opened for The Alley Cats and Echo and the Bunnymen.)

  2. Mark Says:

    Great post! Keep ’em coming. I’m a budding econ instructor and hope to use similar info for an on-line course.

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