What Is Hysteresis?

Hysteresis in the field of economics refers to an event in the economy that persists into the future, even after the factors that led to that event have been removed. Hysteresis can occur following a recession when the unemployment rate continues to increase despite growth in the economy.

Understanding Hysteresis

Hysteresis was a term coined by Sir James Alfred Ewing, a Scottish physicist, and engineer (1855-1935), to refer to systems, organisms, and fields that have memory. In other words, the consequences of an input are experienced with a certain time lag or delay. One example is seen with iron: iron maintains some magnetization after it has been exposed to and removed from a magnetic field. Hysteresis is derived from the Greek term meaning "a coming short, a deficiency."

Hysteresis in economics arises when a single disturbance affects the course of the economy. An example of hysteresis is the delayed effects of unemployment, whereby the unemployment rate can continue to rise even after the economy has begun recovering. The current unemployment rate is a percentage of the number of people in an economy who are looking for work but can't find any. In order to understand hysteresis, we must first explore the types of unemployment. In a recession, which is two consecutive quarters of contracting growth, unemployment rises.

Cyclical Unemployment

When a recession occurs, cyclical unemployment rises as the economy experiences negative growth rates. Cyclical unemployment rises when the economy performs poorly and falls when the economy is in expansion.

Natural Unemployment

Natural unemployment is not the result of a recession but instead, the result of a natural flow of workers to and from jobs. Natural unemployment explains why unemployed people exist in a growing, expansionary economy. Also called the natural rate of unemployment, it represents people, including college graduates or those laid off because of technological advances. The constant, ever-present movement of labor in and out of employment makes up natural unemployment. However, natural unemployment can be from both voluntary and involuntary factors.

Structural Unemployment

When workers are laid off due to a factory relocating or technology replaces their job, structural unemployment exists. Structural unemployment, which is a portion of natural unemployment, occurs even when an economy is healthy and expanding. It can be due to a changing business environment or economic landscape and last for many years. Structural unemployment is typically due to business changes such as factories moving overseas, technological changes, and lack of skills for new jobs.

Key Takeaways

  • Hysteresis in economics refers to an event in the economy that persists into the future, even after the factors that led to that event have been removed.
  • Hysteresis can include the delayed effects of unemployment, whereby the unemployment rate continues to rise even after the economy has recovered.
  • Hysteresis can indicate a permanent change in the workforce from the loss of job skills making workers less employable even after a recession has ended.

How Hysteresis Occurs

As stated earlier, cyclical unemployment is caused by a downturn in the business cycle. Workers lose their jobs when businesses conduct layoffs during a period characterized by low demand and declining business revenues. When the economy re-enters an expansionary phase, it is expected that businesses would start re-hiring the unemployed and that the economy’s unemployment rate would start declining towards its normal or natural unemployment rate until cyclical unemployment becomes zero. This is the ideal scenario, of course, but hysteresis tells a different story.

Hysteresis states that as unemployment increases, more people adjust to a lower standard of living. As they become accustomed to the lower standard of living, people may not be as motivated to achieve the previously desired higher living standard. Also, as more people become unemployed, it becomes more socially acceptable to be or remain unemployed. After the labor market returns to normal, some unemployed people may be disinterested in returning to the workforce.

Hysteresis due to Technology

Hysteresis in unemployment can also be observed when businesses switch to automation during a market downturn. Workers without the skills required to operate this machinery or newly installed technology will find themselves unemployable when the economy starts recovering. In addition to hiring only tech-savvy workers, these companies will only need to hire fewer employees than before the recessionary phase. In effect, the loss of job skills will cause a movement of workers from the cyclical unemployment stage to the structural unemployment group. A rise in structural unemployment will lead to a rise in the natural unemployment rate.

Hysteresis can indicate a permanent change in the workforce from the loss of job skills making workers less employable even after a recession has ended.

Example of Hysteresis

The recession experienced by the UK in 1981 is a good depiction of the effects of hysteresis. During the country’s recessionary period, unemployment rose sharply from 1.5 million in 1980 to 2 million in 1981. After the recession, unemployment rose to more than 3 million between 1984 and 1986. The turmoil of the recession created structural unemployment that persisted during recovery and became difficult to manage.

Combatting Hysteresis

Economies that are experiencing a recession and hysteresis in which the natural rate of unemployment is rising usually employ economic stimulus to combat the resulting cyclical unemployment. Expansionary monetary policies by central banks like the Federal Reserve can include lowering interest rates making loans cheaper to help stimulate the economy. Expansionary fiscal policy might include increases in government spending in regions or industries that are most affected by unemployment.

However, hysteresis is more than cyclical unemployment and can persist long after the economy has recovered. For long-term issues such as a lack of skills due to workers displaced by technological advances, job training programs might be helpful to combat hysteresis.