The Varieties of Unemployment

BERKELEY – We hear from surprisingly many quarters these days that governments in Europe and North America, and their central banks, should give up on the expansionary policies they have pursued to try to create jobs. The high unemployment currently afflicting the North Atlantic, critics of government stimulus maintain, is not cyclical but “structural,” and thus cannot be alleviated by policies that boost aggregate demand.

Let me be the first to say that structural unemployment is a true and severe danger. When people who in other circumstances could be happy, healthy, and productive members of the workforce lack the skills, confidence, social networks, and experience needed to find work worth paying for, we obviously have a problem. And if unemployment in Europe and North America stays elevated for two or three more years, it is highly likely that we will have to face it. For nothing converts cyclical unemployment into structural unemployment more certainly than prolonged unemployment.

But is that true today? Does it look right now as if the biggest problem facing the economies of Europe and North America is structural unemployment? It does not.

Let us remember what structural unemployment looks like. The economy is depressed and unemployment is high not because of slack aggregate demand generated by a collapse in spending, but instead because “structural” factors have produced a mismatch between the skills of the labor force and the distribution of demand. The structure of demand by consumers is different from the jobs that workers are capable of filling.