Monthly Statistical Bulletin Feature Articles

Unemployment is a measure of the way the labour market is operating at any time and is widely used and discussed by economists, government, and the media to measure the level of spare labour capacity in the economy. Low unemployment is considered desirable by all economic players.

Clearly, some of the unemployment at any time will be what is called frictional unemployment. This is unemployment due to normal labour market turnover as people leave one job and move on to another. Unemployment above this minimum, particularly if it is high, is generally considered undesirable, though it can be argued that high unemployment has the effect of reducing wage growth. This may be considered desirable by some of those employing labour, but not so desirable by those who live by selling theirs.


The Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) defines a person who is unemployed as one who, during a specified reference period, is not employed for one hour or more, is actively seeking work, and is currently available for work.

Unemployment is a count of all these people.

The ABS surveys the Australian population every month and publishes a bulletin of statistics, including statistics on unemployment.

Figure 1 shows the seasonally adjusted number of unemployed people for every month in the period since February 1978. From a peak in 1992 and 1993 unemployment declined to plateau in the period 1995 to 1998. After that period, despite a rise in 2001, the number of unemployed people has trended downwards to a figure of approximately 550 000 in late 2005.

Unemployment rate

The unemployment rate is the percentage of the labour force that is measured as unemployed. The labour force is a measure of the economically active population, i.e. employed people plus unemployed people.

Figure 2 shows seasonally adjusted unemployment rates since February 1978.

Underemployed and discouraged jobseekers

The official measure of unemployment does not include people who were underemployed in the reference period. Underemployed people are those who worked part-time but were available for work and wanted to work more hours; or who worked full time but worked part-time hours for economic reasons (were stood down or there was insufficient work available).

Discouraged jobseekers are those people who for various reasons have been discouraged from seeking work and have left the labour force.

In September 2004 there were 243 400 underemployed people and 28 400 discouraged jobseekers.

Recent trends

Over the past five years the period shown in Monthly Economic and Social Indicators (MESI) tables 1.2 and 1.3 the unemployment rate has trended downwards and is now hovering around five per cent of the labour force. The current rates of unemployment are historically low and are below previous lows in 1981 and 1989.

MESI tables 1.2 and 1.3

Monthly Economic and Social Indicators Tables 1.2 and 1.3 show:

  • monthly original and seasonally adjusted and annual average numbers of people unemployed and
  • monthly original and seasonally adjusted and annual average unemployment rates.

Original and seasonally adjusted numbers of people unemployed and the unemployment rate are graphed to show the movement in these series over the past five years.

MESI e-data tables 1.2 and 1.3

MESI e-data original unadjusted data on the number of people unemployed run quarterly from February 1964 to November 1977 then monthly from February 1978. Seasonally adjusted data on the number of unemployed people run monthly from February 1978. All data on unemployment rates run monthly from February 1978.

This feature was prepared by Greg Baker

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