Beyond the Job Numbers: Who is Working?

The December job numbers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) are indisputably good. Net nonfarm jobs increased by 200,000 (up 1.9 million for the year), overall unemployment is down to 8.5%, and even the part-time numbers improved.

However, unemployment has not affected all demographics equally. The statistics below shed some light on who really has a good chance of getting a job now and who is still searching for a needle in a haystack.

Also, consider how we talk about labor statistics as a framing issue that we need to manage better. Other countries start job discussions with how many people have jobs (employed) and how this number relates to the total population. Besides being easier to measure, focusing on employment makes jobs statistics more relevant to the entire nation, including those who are working. If you are employed and you can see that the percentage of working people relative to the population has decreased, you can see that your burden has increased. The unemployed are your allies, and the question becomes, “how can we get more people into the labor force to share the burden of supporting the nation?”

In contrast, when you focus on unemployment, you tell a story of a group that has been marginalized away from the rest of us. Those without jobs are set aside in economic quarantine, complete with stigma. The unemployed are rivals after your job, and the question becomes, “”how can I keep from being one of them?”


Total population Dec 2010 Dec 2011 2011 change
Unemployment rate 9.4% 8.5% -0.9%
Number unemployed 14.4 million 13.1 million -1.3 million
Number employed 139.2 million 140.8 million +1.6 million
Civilian participation rate 64.3% 64.0% [statistically flat]
Employment to population ratio 58.3% 58.5% [statistically flat]


Breakdown Dec 2010 Dec 2011 2011 change
Men 20+ Unemployment rate 9.4% 8.0% -1.4%
  Employed 71.5 million 73.1 million +1.6 million
  Unemployed 7.4 million 6.4 million -1.0 million
  Participation Rate 73.6% 73.4% [statistically flat]
Women 20+ Unemployment rate 8.1% 7.9% -0.2%
  Employed 63.4 million 63.3 million -0.1 million
  Unemployed 5.6 million 5.4 million -0.2 million
  Participation Rate 60.0% 59.5% [statistically flat]
All 16-19 Unemployment rate 25.2% 23.1% -2.1%
  Employed 4.3 million 4.4 million +0.1 million
  Unemployed 1.5 million 1.3 million -0.2 million
  Participation Rate 34.3% 34.2% [statistically flat]
White Unemployment rate 8.3% 7.5% -0.8%
  Employed 114.0 million 115.3 million +1.3 million
  Unemployed 10.3 million 9.3 million -1.0 million
  Participation Rate 64.5% 64.3% [statistically flat]
Black Unemployment rate 15.2 15.8 +0.6%
  Employed 15.1 million 15.2 million +0.1 million
  Unemployed 2.715 million 2.862 million +1.5 million
  Participation Rate 61.7% 61.8% [statistically flat]
Hispanic Unemployment rate 13.0% 11.1% -1.9%
  Employed 20.0 million 20.7 million +0.7 million
  Unemployed 3.0 million 2.6 million -0.4 million
  Participation Rate 67.1% 66.8% [statistically flat]



  • The unemployment rate for blacks increased while unemployment for every other group decreased.
  • The number of employed men jumped 1.6 million (a 2.2% increase) while the number of employed women was flat-to-negative.
  • Only about 1 in 3 teenagers 16-19 is employed, as compared to about 2 in 3 adults over 19.
  • The total employed group of 140 million is supporting a total US population of 310 million, about 2.2 times its size.


Education Dec 2010 Dec 2011 2011 change
Less Than a High School Diploma
  Employed 9.9 million 10 million +0.1 million
  Unemployed 1.9 million 1.7 million -0.2 million
  Total 11.8 million 11.7 million -0.1 million
  Unemployment rate 15.7% 14.3% -1.4%
High School Grad/GED only
  Employed 34.5 million 34.0 million -0.5 million
  Unemployed 3.8 million 3.2 million -0.6 million
  Total 38.2 million 37.1 million -1.1 million
  Unemployment rate 9.8% 8.7% -1.1%
Some College or Associate Degree
  Employed 33.9 million 34.3 million +0.4 million
  Unemployed 2.9 million 2.7 million -0.2 million
  Total 36.8 million 37.0 million +0.2 million
  Unemployment rate 7.9% 7.4% -0.5%
BA/BS and higher
  Employed 44.1 million 45.2 million +1.1 million
  Unemployed 2.1 million 1.9 million -0.2 million
  Total 46.3 million 47.1 million +0.8 million
  Unemployment rate 4.6% 4.0% -0.6%



  • The most highly educated comprise the biggest group here, yet they still have the lowest unemployment rate on the chart.
  • The least educated group is also the smallest, but they have the hardest time finding work.
  • The current unemployment rate for college graduates is less than a third of the unemployment rate for those without a high school diploma and less than half the rate for those with only a high school diploma.
  • The two least educated groups contracted in size in 2011.


5 Replies to “Beyond the Job Numbers: Who is Working?”

  1. An interesting development for women is that the unemployed in their ranks have returned to school in far greater numbers than unemployed males. This augurs well for women finally taking their places among the better paid jobs.

  2. I’d like to see some changes…

    First off, I dislike using the unemployment statistic because at least the one generally reported is based on unemployment claims. So many people have used up their unemployment and a great many others (such as myself) fell through the cracks so we’re not considered in that number, even though we’re seeking employment and are unemployed. The percentage employed is the most valid statistic, although it also doesn’t take into account people who are underemployed or working for less than the job should pay. (Isn’t the social sciences fun! So many gray areas and fuzzy numbers!)

    Also, I’d like to see a few other demographics besides “Black”, “White”, and “Hispanic” (more appropriate to use “Latino”). If those were posted, the results might be illuminating.

    Otherwise, an interesting article.

  3. Actually, the unemployment statistic is not based on unemployment claims at all. I thought that too, but it is actually based on a phone survey! Yeah, no one has ever called me either. The one good thing I can see about focusing on unemployment is that we’re more aware of the rise of the chronically unemployed in this cycle.

    The Hispanic cohort was actually labeled Hispanic/Latino, but everyone I know around here calls themselves Hispanic (and it is shorter), so I went with that. No offense intended. BLS also tracks Asian employment, but it didn’t have comparable measurements, so I didn’t include it.

  4. you are absolutely right. New claims information comes from unemployment offices. But the only way they can find out how many people are working is taken a statistical sampling over the phone. We have no department that tells us if someone went back to work or not. Other than that all he can do is take the number of available people who could be working and balances against the number of people who are working with the exception of those were working under the table

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