The release yesterday by the Australian Bureau of Statistics of unemployment data for December attracted a fair bit of global attention with the seasonally adjusted unemployment rate down slightly from 5.6% to 5.5%. Mind you, this is still up 0.9% from a year before, but that's still not bad.
These statistics bounce round all the time, so its the trend that's really important. Here the first graph from the ABS shows trend and seasonally adjusted monthly employment data since December 08. You can see how the decline in total employment reversed itself over the second half of 2009.
One very interesting statistic is the stability in the participation rate, the proportion of the working age population actually in the workforce. This was the same in December 08 and 09, around 65.2%. Often in times of economic downturn the participation rate falls, thus reducing the apparent rise in the unemployment rate.
The next graph shows total hours worked, all people. The period December 1999 to December 2001 covers the bottom point in the last major economic downturn. This is followed by a steady rise, and then a fall with the latest downturn.
The 1990-1991 downturn coincided with a period of economic restructuring. This was the period of downsizing, restructuring and process re-engineering, a trend that continued into the nineties. This fed into and accelerated the downturn.
This downturn followed a period of significant and growing labour shortages. Many firms tried to preserve staff, reducing working hours rather than total employment. This provided something of a cushion, but was also a wise decision in most cases given the bounce-back in the Australian economy.
Men and women, however, had different experiences.
The next graph shows female hours worked. While the overall pattern is broadly similar, the downturns are less pronounced, while the percentage increase in hours worked over the period from December 1999 is somewhat higher.
By implication, the shifts in male hours worked must have been greater.
One sad-side effect of the earlier downturn was that many men who lost their jobs were effectively forced into first long term unemployment and then, in many cases, premature retirement. The effect this time appears less pronounced.
A second side-effect of the last major recession was a very significant increase in long term unemployment among young people. I do not have statistics at present to justify this assertion, my views are based on personal observation, but I believe it to be true. This accelerated a trend towards long term generational unemployment, something that was quite new in Australia.
The effects here of the current downturn are likely to be less pronounced.