I talked about unemployment in my macro classes yesterday. If you go to this site by the Bureau of Labor Statistics called Employment status of the civilian noninstitutional population 16 years and over, 1970 to date, you can see unemployment rates going back to 1970. It also shows the percent of the civilian noninstitutional population that is employed. The graph below shows how that has changed over time.
The general trend since 1975 has been up, although it has flutctuated. Unfortunately, it has been going down for a couple of years and we are well below the high of 64.4% in the year 2000. It was 59.3% in 2009.
But the average for the years 1970-84 was 58%. So we are still above that. That does not mean what we have is good. But it just puts what is currently going on in perspective.
Some will say that we have a large prison population, so they are not part of the figures and that prison population has been growing. In 2008, the U. S. prison population was 1,610,446. See Prisoners in 2008. Suppose we increase the number of people in the civilian noninstitutional population by that amount. Right now it is 235,801,000. The new figure will be 237,411,446. Now let's keep the number employed the same, at 139,877,000. That would 58.9% employed, still higher than the average from 1970-1984.
Now there were some tough economic times in that earlier period. But we survived and we weren't exactly destitute. So although the economy is not doing well right now, maybe things are not so bad.
Update: For all of 2010, the percent employed in the US was 58.5%. From 1975-83, the average annual unemployment rate was 7.7% and the the average inflation rate was also 7.7%. The average annual percent employed in that period was 58.21%, still less than what we had in 2010 or any other recent year. The last 9 years averaged 61.9%.
Click here to see international comparison of unemployment rates by country.
Also, here is something from the Wall Street Journal last December about how GDP growth is related to unemployment:
"Okun's Law," as it came to be known, has been tweaked over the years, and now states that for every two percentage points the economy grows above its long-term trend annually, unemployment falls by a percentage point.
Most economists peg the economy's long-term trend rate at about 2.5%, which is roughly where economists polled by The Wall Street Journal estimate growth stands in the current quarter.That means, according to Okun's Law, that the economy isn't growing fast enough to bring down unemployment."