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Credit: Zakaria Zayane

Opinion: Unmasking Australia’s hidden unemployment rate

A recent research report from the Australia Institute has spotlighted a striking discrepancy in the way unemployment is calculated in Australia. 

The study, titled “Tip of the Iceberg: Measuring Unemployment in Australia,” unpacks how the current definitions employed by the Reserve Bank and the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) to gauge unemployment could be concealing a more significant issue than they reveal.

At the heart of the matter is the assertion that the existing definitions, which shape policy decisions including interest rate adjustments, are not keeping pace with the evolving dynamics of the labor market. This incongruity has the potential to significantly understate the real scope of individuals seeking employment. In fact, the report contends that if the definitions were updated to encompass those who are actively searching for work but fall under the “not in the labor market” category, the national unemployment rate could be up to three times higher than currently acknowledged.

One of the most striking revelations from the report is the existence of a “shadow pool” of unemployed individuals. This group remains unaccounted for within the official definitions of unemployment outlined by the ABS. Instead, they are classified as being “not in the labor force,” effectively excluding them from the official unemployment rate calculation. The study suggests that this shadow pool could be considerably larger than the officially recognized number of unemployed individuals.

The report further underscores that the majority of individuals transitioning into and out of employment bypass the conventional ABS definition of “unemployment.” Instead, they oscillate between being labeled as “not in the labor force.” This raises critical questions about the adequacy of the metrics currently in use to gauge labor market health.

A noteworthy example is drawn from the December 2022 figures, where 629,500 people left their jobs. Surprisingly, a mere 17% of this group was considered “unemployed” according to the ABS classification. The remaining 83% were categorized as “not in the labor force.” Likewise, among those entering jobs, only 21% were previously classified as “unemployed.” The rest hailed from segments that were not considered part of the labor force at all, thus circumventing the standard definition of unemployment.

Moreover, the report highlights an upward trend in the proportion of individuals sidestepping the ABS’s conventional unemployment categorization. This trend introduces complexity to long-term comparisons and undermines claims like the assertion that unemployment is at its lowest in half a century.

The study doesn’t solely target unemployment metrics; it also examines the scope of employment itself. The report critiques the broadness of the current definitions where anyone working for more than an hour is counted as employed. However, as the nature of work has transformed over recent decades, with an increasing prevalence of casual, part-time, and gig economy roles, this definition might be ill-suited to capturing the nuances of contemporary employment dynamics.

Matt Grudnoff, a senior economist at the Australia Institute, emphasizes the need for a fundamental shift in the way unemployment is perceived and measured. He asserts that the official unemployment figure, commonly employed as a benchmark, only scratches the surface of the actual job-seeking landscape.

Grudnoff underscores the outdated nature of the methods used to categorize those who are employed, unemployed, or not in the labor force. He highlights that these criteria were established in the 1950s, a time when the workforce dynamics were markedly different from today’s multifaceted landscape.

In the bygone era, traditional gender roles were prevalent, with men typically serving as primary breadwinners relying on full-time employment. Women’s participation in the workforce was significantly lower than it is now, and part-time, casual work, along with the gig economy, were virtually non-existent concepts. Grudnoff contends that clinging to these archaic definitions disregards the current realities of the workforce.

He further asserts that the shortcomings in the definitions employed by the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) lead to a major blind spot for policymakers and other stakeholders who base their decisions on the official unemployment rate. Grudnoff underscores that this rate captures only a fraction of the individuals actively seeking employment.

In the context of the Reserve Bank’s (RBA) decision-making, Grudnoff critiques the practice of relying on the unemployment rate to justify interest rate hikes. He argues that the figures currently used in this process do not paint an accurate picture of the true state of the job market. In fact, the real number of job seekers could surpass the official unemployment rate by a factor of more than three.

Additionally, Grudnoff reveals a critical implication of the current unemployment definitions: they contribute to discussions about the possibility of a wage-price spiral. He explains that when unemployment is low, workers have greater bargaining power to demand higher wages. However, this assumption may not hold true given the discrepancies and gaps in the official figures.

The research conducted by the Australia Institute underscores the imperative for policymakers and the media to broaden their perspective beyond the narrow confines of the conventional unemployment rate. Grudnoff believes that providing a comprehensive and accurate picture of the economy requires a shift away from antiquated definitions and a commitment to understanding the complexities of the contemporary workforce.

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Yajush Gupta

Yajush Gupta

Yajush is a journalist at Dynamic Business. He previously worked with Reuters as a business correspondent and holds a postgrad degree in print journalism.

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