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IB DP Economics Study Notes

3.3.1 Full Employment

When discussing macroeconomics, the concept of full employment often arises as a cornerstone. Achieving full employment is viewed as a significant goal for many economies. It's a scenario where every individual, eager and available to work at the current wage rate, is employed. Importantly, full employment does not suggest a complete absence of unemployment.

An infographic of unemployment figures in South Africa

Image courtesy of cde

Definition of Full Employment

Full employment is characterised by the complete use of all available labour resources in the most optimally efficient manner possible. This condition is met when every individual actively seeking work is gainfully employed.

  • Key Point: Full employment does not equate to zero unemployment. It instead acknowledges the presence of inevitable involuntary unemployment, while maximising the use of the workforce.
  • Involuntary Unemployment: This occurs when individuals, despite being willing and able to work at the prevailing wage rates, are unable to find jobs. It stands in contrast to voluntary unemployment, where individuals choose not to work.

Understanding the implications of full employment on price stability is crucial, as the two concepts are closely interlinked within the sphere of macroeconomic stability.

Furthermore, the achievement of full employment has a significant impact on economic growth, as it utilises the labour force to its fullest potential, contributing to increased production and GDP.

A flowchart illustrating full employment

Image courtesy of investopedia

Natural Rate of Unemployment

Central to understanding full employment is the concept of the natural rate of unemployment (NRU). This represents the sum of frictional and structural unemployment, excluding cyclical unemployment, and is often seen as an inevitable and constant presence in an economy.

  • Frictional Unemployment:
    • Definition: Occurs when individuals are momentarily between jobs.
    • Cause: This can be attributed to reasons such as professionals changing sectors, or fresh graduates waiting to land their first job. It represents the time spent searching for a new position.
    • Duration: Typically short-term in nature.
  • Structural Unemployment:
    • Definition: This results from a mismatch between the skills workers possess and the skills employers demand.
    • Cause: Often arises due to technological evolutions, significant industry shifts, or regional economic changes.
    • Duration: Tends to be longer-term and may necessitate retraining or education to address.
  • Cyclical Unemployment (not part of NRU):
    • Definition: Linked to fluctuations in the broader economic cycle.
    • Cause: Directly related to economic downturns or booms.
    • Duration: Duration can vary depending on the length and severity of the economic cycle.

To address these types of unemployment, governments employ various policy measures, including fiscal policy and monetary policy, each with their own limitations and capabilities.

Detailed Overview of Types of Unemployment

A flowchart illustrating the types of unemployment

Image courtesy of sketchbubble

1. Frictional Unemployment

  • Characteristics:
    • Often short-term and temporary in nature.
    • Primarily voluntary.
    • Results from normal transitions in the workforce.
  • Real-life Scenarios: A professional choosing to leave a job for a brief sabbatical before seeking new employment. New university graduates spending a few months job hunting.

2. Structural Unemployment

  • Characteristics:
    • More enduring and challenging to address.
    • Emanates from notable shifts in an economy.
  • Real-life Scenarios: Workers in the print journalism industry struggling to find jobs as digital media becomes predominant. Traditional shop owners facing redundancy due to the rise of e-commerce.

3. Cyclical Unemployment

  • Characteristics:
    • Directly tied to economic cycles.
    • Increases when the economy is in a downturn and reduces during prosperous times.
  • Real-life Scenarios: During economic recessions, luxury goods producers might lay off workers due to decreased demand.

4. Seasonal Unemployment

  • Characteristics:
    • Results from regular and predictable changes in the season.
  • Real-life Scenarios: Lifeguards during the winter or holiday retail workers after the festive season.

5. Long-term Unemployment

  • Characteristics:
    • Refers to those unemployed for an extended period, often more than a year.
  • Real-life Scenarios: An individual from a declining industry, like coal mining, who hasn't secured employment in over a year due to rapidly evolving industry dynamics.

6. Underemployment

  • Definition: This refers to individuals who are working but not in their desired capacity, either in terms of hours, salary, or skill utilisation.
  • Real-life Scenarios: A PhD holder working a part-time job unrelated to their field of study due to a lack of available positions.
A flowchart illustrating underemployment

Image courtesy of educba

In grasping the essence of full employment, it's imperative to delve deep into the multifaceted nature of unemployment. Each type is influenced by distinct factors and requires unique policy approaches to address. While full employment is a prized goal, economies must navigate and manage these various types of unemployment to ensure a balanced, equitable, and productive workforce.

Moreover, the implementation of labour market reforms can play a pivotal role in achieving full employment by enhancing the flexibility and efficiency of the labour market.


Cyclical unemployment is related to economic cycles and is not directly associated with the concept of full employment. It arises during economic downturns or recessions when the overall demand for goods and services decreases, leading firms to cut back on production and lay off workers. When the economy recovers and demand picks up, cyclical unemployment tends to decrease. Full employment considers only frictional and structural unemployment and doesn't factor in cyclical unemployment, as the goal is to achieve an employment level where only the unavoidable types of unemployment exist.

The natural rate of unemployment can fluctuate based on several factors. Structural changes in the economy, such as technological advancements, can displace certain jobs while creating new ones, altering the job landscape. Additionally, changes in labour market institutions, demographic shifts (like an ageing population), and globalisation can also influence the natural rate. For instance, as more industries automate, there might be a period where workers displaced from traditional roles face structural unemployment until they can retrain or transition to new roles.

Underemployment refers to the situation where individuals are employed but not to their full capacity. This could be in terms of working fewer hours than desired or being in roles that don't utilise their skills or qualifications. While full employment focuses on the idea that everyone willing to work at the current wage rate is employed, it doesn't delve into the qualitative aspect of those jobs. Thus, an economy can achieve full employment while still having a significant portion of underemployed individuals. Addressing underemployment requires a deeper look into job quality and ensuring that job roles align with workers' skills and aspirations.

Economic policies can have a significant impact on the natural rate of unemployment. For example, policies that improve the flexibility of labour markets, such as those that make it easier for firms to hire and fire workers, might reduce frictional and structural unemployment. Additionally, investments in education and training can help align worker skills with industry needs, reducing structural unemployment. However, overly strict regulations or high minimum wage laws might deter employers from hiring, potentially increasing the natural rate. Hence, the balance and design of these policies are crucial.

When an economy approaches full employment, it is operating near its potential output. At this level, further increases in demand can lead to inflationary pressures, as the supply of available resources, including labour, becomes limited. This is because, with more people employed and earning wages, consumer spending can increase, driving up the demand for goods and services. However, since the economy is already operating at its potential, supply might not keep up with this increasing demand, leading to rising prices. This phenomenon is referred to as demand-pull inflation.

Practice Questions

Define 'full employment' and explain why it does not mean zero unemployment.

Full employment is a situation in an economy where all individuals who are willing and available to work at the current wage rate are gainfully employed. Crucially, full employment does not signify an absence of unemployment. Instead, it acknowledges that there will always be a certain level of unemployment in an economy, particularly due to frictional and structural reasons. Frictional unemployment arises from people transitioning between jobs, while structural unemployment is the result of a mismatch between workers' skills and the demands of employers. Both these forms of unemployment are considered inevitable in any dynamic economy.

Differentiate between frictional and structural unemployment and provide a real-life scenario for each.

Frictional unemployment occurs when individuals are temporarily out of work while transitioning between jobs or when they are entering the workforce for the first time. For instance, a recent university graduate looking for their first job post-graduation might experience frictional unemployment. On the other hand, structural unemployment arises when there's a fundamental mismatch between the skills that workers possess and the skills that employers need. This type of unemployment can be due to technological advancements, industry shifts, or regional economic changes. An example might be a traditional print journalist struggling to find employment as media consumption moves predominantly online.

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Written by: Dave
Cambridge University - BA Hons Economics

Dave is a Cambridge Economics graduate with over 8 years of tutoring expertise in Economics & Business Studies. He crafts resources for A-Level, IB, & GCSE and excels at enhancing students' understanding & confidence in these subjects.

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