Economic Snapshot | Jobs and Unemployment

Who are the 23 million ‘underemployed’ workers?

The number 23 million is often loosely used in public debate to mean the number of people “looking for work.” But who does this number count and not count? First, it includes 12.3 million people who meet the official definition of unemployment: jobless workers who are actively seeking work. Second, it includes the 8.3 million workers who are working part time but who want and are available for full-time work (“involuntary” part-timers). Third, it includes the 2.5 million people who want a job and are available to work, but have given up actively seeking work (“marginally attached” workers). These three groups together—23.1 million strong—make up the group commonly referred to as the “underemployed.”

Who is not counted in that 23 million? Workers who are underemployed in a “skills or experience” sense (e.g., a mechanical engineer working as a barista). Unfortunately, there is no official measure that counts people who are underemployed in this way.

The figure below shows how the number of “underemployed” workers has evolved since 2000. The number of underemployed workers increased over the weak business cycle of 2000–2007 from 10.0 million in the fourth quarter of 2000 to 13.2 million in the fourth quarter of 2007. It then shot up in the Great Recession to a peak of 26.9 million in Oct. 2009 before modestly improving to its current level.

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