The unemployment rate is one measure of the extent of labour market slack, as well as being an important indicator of economic and social well-being. Breakdowns of unemployment by gender show how women are faring compared to men.
Unemployed persons are defined as those who report that they are without work, that they are available for work and that they have taken active steps to find work in the last four weeks. The ILO Guidelines specify what actions count as active steps to find work; these include answering vacancy notices, visiting factories, construction sites and other places of work, and placing advertisements in the press as well as registering with labour offices.
The unemployment rate is defined as the number of unemployed persons as a percentage of the labour force, where the latter consists of the unemployed plus those in paid or self-employment.
When unemployment is high, some persons become discouraged and stop looking for work; they are then excluded from the labour force. This implies that the unemployment rate may fall, or stop rising, even though there has been no underlying improvement in the labour market.
All OECD countries use the ILO Guidelines for measuring unemployment in their national labour force surveys. The operational definitions used in national labour force surveys may, however, vary slightly across countries. Unemployment levels are also likely to be affected by changes in the survey design and the survey conduct. Despite these limits, the unemployment rates shown here are of good international comparability and fairly consistent over time.
The unemployment rates shown here differ from rates derived from registered unemployed at labour offices that are often published in individual countries. Data on registered unemployment have limited international comparability, as the rules for registering at labour offices vary from country to country.
When looking at total unemployment rates averaged over the three years ending 2012, countries can be divided into three groups: a low unemployment group with rates below 5% (Austria, Japan, Korea, Luxembourg, Norway, the Netherlands and Switzerland); a middle group with unemployment rates between 5% and 10%; and a high unemployment group with unemployment rates of 10% and above (Estonia, Greece, Hungary, Ireland, Portugal, Spain, the Slovak Republic and South Africa).
In most OECD countries, unemployment rates grew over the period from 2008 to 2011, with marked increases in Estonia, Greece, Ireland and Spain. In 2012, the OECD rate was stable, masking different patterns between the European Union, where the rate continued to increase and most non-European countries where it fell.
The breakdown of unemployment by gender shows that, in line with the overall rate, the OECD unemployment rates for both men and women was significantly higher in 2011 than in 2008. The unemployment rate for men, which had been lower than the rate for women, rose considerably faster and by 2009 was higher than the rate for women. This is first explained by the fact that job losses over the first stage of the crisis were particularly severe in sectors which traditionally have been occupied by men – namely construction, manufacturing, mining and quarrying. Between 2009 and 2010, the rise in the overall OECD unemployment rates decelerated faster for men and the men to women unemployment ratio has now begun to decrease in about two third of the countries, but in 2012, the rate for men was still higher than the rate for women in half of the countries.