Today's unemployment rate was announced as 9.7%. But some articles mention a "true" unemployment rate of 16.8%. How can both numbers coexist, and which is "really true"?
This is a lengthy, technical post, so here is the conclusion:
As a matter of compassion for people who would like to work more, U6 may be a more inclusive measure, but as a matter of statistical information, as a matter of understanding the economic (and political) implications of unemployment, there is no advantage in choosing anything other than the official unemployment rate, U3. Calling U6 the "true" or "real" unemployment is misleading and a disservice to readers and listeners. It is a claim of added value when in fact there is none.
Now the details:
The Bureau of Labor Statistics produces an official unemployment statistic each month, known as U3. The BLS also produces five alternative measures of unemployment, U1, U2, U4, U5 and U6. U1 and U2 are narrower measures of long-term (over 15 weeks) and new job losses. U4-U6 are alternative measures including discouraged, marginally attached to the labor force and part-time workers who would prefer more hours. (See the BLS data here.)
As unemployment rises, the rates for marginal and part time workers also increases, and runs considerably above the official unemployment rate. The key difference is that discouraged and marginal workers are both not working and not looking for work but have looked in the last 12 months and say they would like to work. (Discouraged is a subset of marginal, with the addition that they cite a job-market related reason for not seeking work.) The part-time worker category includes currently employed people who want and are available for full time work but who have had to settle for part time employment.
Some news sources refer to U6, which includes both marginal and part-time workers as the "true" or "real" unemployment level. NPR has done so here and here and here and here. And the Washington Post's Frank Ahrens' Economy Watch Blog has had quite a bit to say about this including, here and here.
But in what sense is U6 more "true" than U5 or the official U3? One can certainly make a case that discouraged workers are unemployed, would like to work, but so disheartened they've given up. A slightly weaker case can be made for the marginal workers. But those two together only add modestly to the official unemployment rate, as you can see in the chart above. Where the big jump comes is among part-time employees, who are added to the mix in U6.
So is U6 a better measure? It certainly matters that 16.8% of potential workers would like more hours (or a job of any kind) compared to the 9.7% who are without jobs and actively looking. But if you are going to adopt U6 as your standard, you need to realize that even during the "full employment" of the late 1990s to 2000, when unemployment (i.e. U3) fell to just 3.8%, U6 still stood at 6.9%, 1.8 times higher. Of course a booming economy provides more full time job opportunities, but even the hottest economy of recent decades did not bring U6 below the 7-8 point range.
Since 1994 (when current unemployment measures were adopted) U6 has averaged 1.76 times the U3 rate. Today's ratio stands at 1.73, essentially the same as the historical average.