Long term trends in unemployment and economic inactivity

  • Published: Apr 17, 2013

The graph below shows the proportion of the working age population who were either unemployed or economically inactive each year since 1971. Note that for unemployment, this is different from the unemployment rate which is often used when the figures are released. That rate is expressed as a proportion of those who are economically active. We want to look at unemployment and inactivity together, so we need to look at both of them as a proportion of the whole population. 

By pressing the different buttons you can look at men or women separately. By hovering over the circles on the lines, you can see the relevant figure for each year. 

Click here to view graph on mobile

Looking at the whole population, the unemployment line rises quite notably in the recessions of the early 1980s, 1990s and late 2000s. The third of these rises is much lower than the previous two. Moreover, while in previous recessions the level of economic inactivity rose, this time it did not. In fact, the line seems to dip in the most recent year. 
This overall figure for inactivity is a combination of two very different trends. In 1972, 45% of women were economically inactive; that is, neither in nor seeking paid work. By the end of 2012, this level had fallen below 29%, the lowest in the series. (The most recent figures,  which take us to February of this year, show a further fall to just under 28%). Unemployment among women now stands at 5%, lower than the level for men but the highest it has been for 20 years and still rising. 

Looking at the figures for men,  inactivity rates have been rising over the long term. In 1971, 5% of working age men were economically inactive compared to 17% in 2012. Until the recession of the early 1990s, unemployment and inactivity levels among men were quite similar, within a percentage point or two of each other. By 2012, the gap was 10 percentage points - 17% economically inactive compared to 7% unemployed. 

The long term rise in male inactivity has been huge, but between 2011 and 2012 men’s inactivity rates fell. This year on year fall, while only half a percentage point, is the largest such fall in the 40 years of data. Moreover, the rise in the last decade, of around one percentage point, was much smaller than the rise in previous decades. 

This interactive graph derives from an earlier blog on the topic. Read the full blog here. Unfortunately, this visualisation cannot be viewed in older versions of Internet Explorer (IE 8 and earlier). You can download a newer version here