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Women, part-timers and the young hit hardest in jobs crisis

What happened to our rate? It crept up from 5.2 per cent to 6.2 per cent. Really? Are you kidding? What’s that if it’s not a fiddle?

Or, consider this. Our figures show that about 900,000 people lost their jobs in the four weeks to mid-April. But they also show that unemployment increased during the period by only about 100,000. How’s that possible? What’s that if it’s not a fiddle?

Actually, it’s support for one of my favourite sayings: the world is a complicated place. There are puzzles everywhere. If you want everything to be black or white – all good or all bad – you should never have left the security of primary school.

So, it may look like a conspiracy, but it ain’t. A sign that we’re dealing with a myth is that the identity of the PM who did the dirty deed changes with the political sympathies of the person who tells you they remember him doing it.

The figures we get each month for how many people are employed, unemployed or neither (“not in the labour force”) come from a huge monthly survey of households conducted by the Australian Bureau of Statistics, which brooks no interference from politicians.

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The bureau follows international conventions set by the United Nation’s International Labour Organisation, in Geneva. Its definitions haven’t changed in many decades. (I once ran into a union-movement economist who was an Australian representative on the ILO committee reviewing the definitions. To my surprise, he staunchly defended the decision to leave them unchanged, including the bit about one hour’s work meaning you were employed.)

As the bureau explains in its release, the main reason the North Americans’ unemployment rates are so much higher than ours has to do with workers who’ve been “stood down” for some weeks because the boss has no work for them, but hopes to bring them back when things improve.

We class such people a still employed, whereas the North Americans class them as unemployed. The bureau estimates that, if we did it the American way, our unemployment rate would be not 6.2 per cent, but 11.7 per cent.

Although about 900,000 Australians ceased to be employed during the four weeks to mid-April, it may amaze you that, in the same period, about 300,000 people went from not having a job to having one. This surprises people because they don’t realise how much coming and going there is in the labour force, even during recessions.

The bureau estimates that, even in a month where total employment seems hardly to have changed, on average about 300,000 people leave employment and about the same number move into employment.

It’s the net fall in employment of about 600,000 that matters. Why then did unemployment rise by only about 100,000? Because part of the definition of being unemployed is that you must be actively looking for job. Since we were in lockdown, 500,000 of these people didn’t start looking for another job, and so were classed as “not in the labour force”. As soon as they do start looking, they’ll be unemployed.

People make too much of the rule that an hour’s work means you’re not unemployed. Only 2.5 per cent of all those employed in March worked for only one to five hours a week. It’s true, however, that the international definition of unemployment is too narrow, especially in a world where one-third of our jobs are part-time.

This is why the bureau always calculates the rate of under-employment – people who have (mainly) part-time jobs, but would prefer to be working more hours than they’re able to, maybe even full-time hours.

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The coronacession has meant many workers are having their hours cut. The number of underemployed people jumped by 100,000 to 800,000, taking the underemployed proportion of the labour force from 8.8 per cent to 13.7 per cent.

Delving into the figures, about 55 per cent of the 600,000 jobs lost in April were held by women, even though women accounted for only 47 per cent of the workforce. Almost two-thirds of the jobs lost were part-time.

Employment of people aged 15 to 24 fell by about 11 per cent, compared with a fall of 3 per cent for prime-aged workers (aged 25 to 54). Unemployment is a much bigger problem for the young, as is underemployment.

While your head’s still spinning, one last puzzle. Being counted as unemployed by the bureau is not the same thing as being eligible to receive unemployment benefits – the “JobSeeker” payment – from Centrelink.

Some people counted as unemployed aren’t eligible for the dole (often because their spouse’s income is too high), whereas some people eligible for the dole aren’t counted as unemployed (because they’re allowed to work a few hours a week before the dole cuts out).

Right now, however (and partly thanks to a temporary increase in how much your spouse may earn), there are 800,000 people counted as unemployed, but twice as many – 1.6 million – getting the JobSeeker payment.

Ross Gittins is economics editor for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.

Twitter: @1RossGittins

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