What Is Full Employment?
Full employment is an economic situation in which all available labor resources are being used in the most efficient way possible. Full employment embodies the highest amount of skilled and unskilled labor that can be employed within an economy at any given time.
True full employment is an ideal—and probably unachievable—situation in which anyone who is willing and able to work can find a job, and unemployment is zero. It is a theoretical goal for economic policymakers to aim for rather than an actually observed state of the economy. In practical terms, economists can define various levels of full employment that are associated with low but non-zero rates of unemployment.
- Full employment is when all available labor resources are being used in the most efficient way possible.
- Full employment embodies the highest amount of skilled and unskilled labor that can be employed within an economy at any given time.
- Economists define various types of full employment based on their theories as targets for economic policy.
- Many modern economists agree that some unemployment is necessary to avoid inflation and to allow workers to move between jobs, pursue education, or improve their skills.
- Unemployment of 5% or lower is often considered full employment in a real-world context.
Understanding Full Employment
Full employment is seen as the ideal employment rate within an economy at which no workers are involuntarily unemployed. Full employment of labor is one component of an economy that is operating at its full productive potential and producing at a point along its production possibilities frontier. If there is any unemployment, then the economy is not producing at full potential, and some improvement in economic efficiency may be possible.
However, because it may not be practically possible to eliminate all unemployment from all sources, full employment may not actually be attainable. For many economists, newer understandings of full employment require some degree of unemployment to temper inflation and allow workers to move between jobs, pursue their education, or improve their skills.
An unemployment rate of 5% is often considered full employment. This level of unemployment is enough to minimize inflation and allow workers to move between jobs, but those wanting full-time work should be able to find a full-time job (even if it is not their preferred occupation).
The Phillips Curve
In terms of cyclical unemployment, many macroeconomic theories present full employment as a goal that, once attained, often results in an inflationary period. The link between inflation and unemployment is a prominent part of the Monetarist and Keynesian theories. This inflation is a result of workers having more disposable income, which would drive prices upward, according to the concept of the Phillips curve.
This poses a potential problem for economic policymakers, such as the U.S. Federal Reserve, that have a dual mandate to achieve and maintain both stable prices and full employment. If there is, in fact, a trade-off between employment and inflation, per the Phillips curve, then simultaneous full employment and price stability may not be possible.
The Austrian School
On the other hand, some economists also argue against the overzealous pursuit of full employment, especially via the over-expansion of money and credit through monetary policy. Economists of the Austrian School believe that this will result in damaging distortions to the financial and manufacturing sectors of the economy. This might even result in more unemployment in the long run by precipitating a subsequent recession as real resource constraints come into conflict with artificially increased demand for various types of capital goods and complementary labor.
Types of Unemployment
Unemployment can result from cyclical, structural, frictional, or institutional causes. Policymakers can focus on reducing the underlying causes of each of these types of unemployment, but in doing so they may face trade-offs against other policy goals.
The desire to encourage technological progress can cause structural unemployment. For example, when workers find themselves obsolete due to the automation of factories or the use of artificial intelligence.
Institutional unemployment arises from institutional policies that affect the economy. These can include governmental programs promoting social equity and offering generous safety net benefits, and labor market phenomena, such as unionization and discriminatory hiring.
Some unemployment may be unavoidable by policymakers entirely, such as frictional unemployment, which is caused by workers voluntarily changing jobs or first entering the workforce. Searching for a new job, recruiting new employees, and matching the right worker to the right job are all a part of it.
Cyclical unemployment is the fluctuating type of unemployment that rises and falls within the normal course of the business cycle. This unemployment rises when an economy is in a recession and falls when an economy is growing. Therefore, for an economy to be at full employment, it cannot be in a recession that’s causing cyclical unemployment.
The Phillips curve is cyclical. It posits that full employment inevitably results in higher inflation, which in turn leads to increasing unemployment.
For the most part, macroeconomic policymakers focus on reducing cyclical unemployment to move the economy toward full employment. In this case they may face trade-offs against rising inflation or the risk of distorting other sectors of the economy.
Cyclical unemployment, which is driven by changes in economic cycles, should not be confused with "seasonal unemployment," where there are changes in the workforce that predictably occur throughout the year, For example, jobs in the retail sector typically decrease after the traditional run-up to the holiday shopping season ends after New Year's. Unemployment rises when people hired for the holidays are no longer needed to meet demand.
Types of Full Employment
Due to the difficulty, and questionable desirability, of achieving true full employment, economists have developed other, more pragmatic goals for economic policy.
The natural rate of unemployment represents only the amount of unemployment due to structural and frictional factors in labor markets. The natural rate serves as an achievable approximation of full employment while accepting that technological change and the normal transaction costs of labor markets will always mean some modest unemployment at any given point in time.
Non-Accelerating Inflation Rate
The non-accelerating inflation rate of unemployment (NAIRU) represents the rate of unemployment that is consistent with a low, stable rate of price inflation. The NAIRU is useful as a policy target for economic policymakers who operate under a dual mandate to balance full employment and stable prices.
This is not full employment, but it is the closest the economy can be to full employment without excessive upward pressure on prices from increasing wages. Modern economists often mean the NAIRU when they refer to full employment. Note that the NAIRU only makes sense conceptually and as a policy target if and when there is indeed a stable trade-off between unemployment and inflation, as posited by the Phillips curve.
Benefits of Full Employment
Full employment can provide a number of benefits both to individuals and to the overall social and economic balance of a country. As employment increases toward full employment, benefits include:
- Reduced poverty if all workers have access to work at or above the prevailing rate of compensation
- Improved wages and working conditions as employers must complete for workers
- Preventing the unemployed from becoming demotivated or losing valuable skills
- GDP growth as workers are able to afford goods and services
- Reduction in government spending on unemployment benefits and welfare programs
- Less government borrowing due to increased revenue from income taxes
Examples of Full Employment
Full employment is an ideal condition. As a result, there are no real-world examples of full employment. Countries work to increase employment towards full employment and lower the rate of unemployment.
However, there are examples of what economists consider full employment, which is when a country's unemployment is as close to zero as real-world conditions allow without triggering inflation or other economic hardships. In general, full employment in the real world is often considered 95% employment or higher.
By the end of 2021, countries whose reported unemployment rates could be considered full employment included Bahrain (1.9%), Benin (1.6%), Cuba (2.8%), Germany (3.5%), Japan (2.8%), Malta (3.5%), Mexico (4.4%), the Netherlands (4%), Norway (5%), Poland (3.4%), and Thailand (1.4%).
In the United States, the unemployment rate was 3.4% in January 2023, one of the lowest historical rates since 1948. The lowest unemployment rate in the U.S. since 1948 was 2.7% in 1952. Both of these rates would be considered full employment by economists.
Unemployment numbers, however, do not take into account those who have dropped out of the workforce entirely because they have stopped looking for work, even if they would prefer to have a job, or those who are working part-time but would prefer full-time work. Under true full employment conditions, anyone who wanted to find a full-time job would be able to.
What Rate Is Considered Full Employment?
Many economists consider an unemployment rate of 5% or lower to be maximum employment, or as close to full employment as is possible in the real world. This means that the rate of full employment is 95% or above.
How Do You Know If There Is Full Employment?
In the United States, the Bureau of Labor Statistics considers full employment to be happening when the unemployment rate is equal to the NAIRU, there is no cyclical unemployment, and the country's GDP is at its potential. For many countries, these conditions are met when the unemployment rate is at 5% or lower.
Why Is There Unemployment at Full Employment?
Full employment and zero unemployment are not the same thing in the real world. Some types of unemployment are unavoidable or even necessary to prevent inflation, allow workers to move between jobs, or give people the chance to improve their education or job skills. Industries and companies also change, which changes the available jobs, and this process is eventually beneficial to the economy even if it leaves some workers temporarily unemployed.
The Bottom Line
Full employment is when all available labor resources are being used in the most efficient way possible without triggering inflation. It is a theoretical state in which anyone who wants to find full-time work can do so and unemployment is at 0%.
Many modern economists agree that some unemployment is necessary to avoid inflation. Temporary unemployment can also allow workers time to move between jobs, go to school or otherwise improve their skills. In the real world, an unemployment rate of 5% or lower is often considered full employment. This level of unemployment prevents inflation and lets workers move between jobs, but is low enough that those wanting full-time work should be able to find some kind of full-time job.