You’ve seen the headlines—on June 1, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported that the nation’s unemployment rate was sitting at 3.8 percent, an 18-year low.
To see a lower rate, you’d have to dust off your jetpack and head back to December 1969. (That year, Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon and the Beatles gave their last public performance. So, why not?)
If you prefer your feet firmly planted, check out this FRED® chart, which plots the unemployment rate using data sourced from the BLS.
What does this picture tell us, exactly? And is this the only measure of unemployment that economists watch?
Let’s explain what economists mean when they talk about unemployment. The BLS, which is the federal agency charged with measuring labor market activity, offers these basic concepts:
But, what about a couple neighbors you know?
Based on BLS’ official measures, neither of your neighbors would be counted among the nation’s unemployed. Such nuances are why economists also study alternative measures of unemployment. The BLS tracks these numbers, too, to help gauge the economy’s use of its labor resources.
|Measure||What It Looks at||Seasonally Adjusted Rates (As of May 2018)|
|U-1||Persons unemployed 15 weeks or longer, as a percent of the civilian labor force||1.3%|
|U-2||Job losers and persons who completed temporary jobs, as a percent of the civilian labor force||1.8%|
|U-3||Total unemployed, as a percent of the civilian labor force (official unemployment rate)||3.8%|
|U-4||Total unemployed plus discouraged workers, as a percent of the civilian labor force plus discouraged workers||4.0%|
|U-5||Total unemployed, plus discouraged workers, plus all other persons marginally attached to the labor force, as a percent of the civilian labor force plus all persons marginally attached to the labor force||4.6%|
|U-6||Total unemployed, plus all persons marginally attached to the labor force, plus total employed part time for economic reasons, as a percent of the civilian labor force plus all persons marginally attached to the labor force||7.6%|
In the above examples:
You can explore a ton of unemployment data on the St. Louis Fed’s Research site. A quick search of “unemployment rate” in FRED yields more than 14,000 data series. You can view trends by unemployment classification, geography, age, education, gender and more.
And, if you really want to head back to 1969, check out FRASER® (Federal Reserve Archival System for Economic Research). This digital library of U.S. historical materials features several archived documents on unemployment—including the BLS’ original bulletin on employment and earnings (PDF) from December 1969.