The employed population is made up of persons above a specified age who furnish the supply of labour for the production of goods and services. When measured for a short reference period (of one week or one day), it refers to all persons who worked for pay, profit or family gain during that period. It also includes all persons who had a job or enterprise but were absent from that job or enterprise during that period on a temporary basis: persons who during the reference period were sick, on vacation, maternity leave, strike or were temporarily laid off.
The unemployed population is made up of persons above a specified age who are available to, but did not, furnish the supply of labour for the production of goods and services. When measured for a short reference period, it relates to all persons not in employment who would have accepted a suitable job or started an enterprise during the reference period if the opportunity arose, and who had actively looked for ways to obtain a job or start an enterprise in the near past.
The sum of the employed and the unemployed population measured for a short reference period is equivalent to the labour force, also known as the current economically active population.
Another measure of economically active population relates to the usually active population, which is measured with reference to a long reference period such as a year. It comprises all persons above a specified age whose main activity status as determined in terms of number of weeks or days during a long specified period (such as the preceding 12 months or the preceding calendar year) was employed or unemployed.
All these definitions make reference to persons “above a specified age”, also known as the working age population. The minimum age limit for defining the working age population needs to be specified by each country according to its national circumstances such as the compulsory schooling age, minimum age for admission to employment, and extent of child labour. These circumstances vary so greatly among countries that it is impossible to specify any universally applicable minimum age limit at the international level. Some countries also use a maximum age limit for defining the working age population but this is not recommended by the international standards.
Current guidelines on the labour force, employment and unemployment were adopted by the Thirteenth International Conference of Labour Statisticians in 1983. The Resolution concerning statistics of the economically active population, employment, unemployment and underemployment establishes international definitions for the economically active population, employment, unemployment and underemployment . It sets these concepts within the production boundary of the System of National Accounts, SNA in such a way that labour statistics are coherent with production statistics, i.e., employment will refer to persons who provide labour for the production of goods and services accounted for in the SNA, and unemployment will refer to persons who are seeking to supply that labour. It also establishes the principles and operational criteria for classification in employment and unemployment. For a detailed explanation of these standards, please see Measurement of employment, unemployment and underemployment – Current international standards and issues in their application
Importance and applications
Statistics of the economically active population, employment, unemployment and underemployment serve a large variety of purposes. They provide measures of labour supply, labour input, the structure of employment, and the extent to which the available labour time and human resources are actually utilised or not. Such information is essential for macro-economic and human resources development planning and policy formulation. When collected at different points in time, the data provide the basis for monitoring current trends and changes in the labour market and employment situation, which may be analysed in connection with other economic and social phenomena so as to evaluate macro-economic policies. The unemployment rate, in particular, is widely used as an overall indicator of the current performance of a nation's economy. Statistics of the economically active population, employment, unemployment and underemployment are also an essential base for the design and evaluation of government programmes geared to employment creation, vocational training, income maintenance, poverty reduction and similar objectives. The measurement of the relationships between employment, income and other socioeconomic characteristics provides information on the adequacy of employment of different subgroups of the population, the income-generating capacity of different types of economic activities, and the
number and characteristics of persons unable to ensure their economic well being on the basis of the employment opportunities available to them. Information on employment and income, disaggregated by branches of economic activity, occupations and socio-demographic characteristics, is needed for collective bargaining, for assessment of the effects of poverty reduction policies on different subgroups of the population, and for the analysis of ethnical, gender or age inequalities in work opportunities and participation and their changes over time.
A little bit of history
The question of unemployment statistics was included in the agenda of the Second International Conference of Labour Statisticians in 1925. The Conference adopted recommendations relating to unemployment statistics based on unemployment insurance or on the data of employment offices or on population censuses or, lastly, on special inquiries relating to the whole population or to a sample of the population.
Until the Second World War it was primarily from Population Census that statistics of the economically active population depended. In 1938 the Committee of Statistical Experts of the League of Nations drew up proposals for improving international comparability of census data on the economically active population including a definition of that population. In the ensuing years a considerable expansion in statistics of employment took place in many countries. The technique of sample surveys pointed the way to a more comprehensive approach towards data on employment and unemployment. At the time, the concepts of labour force, employment and unemployment were understood from the point of view of “gainful activities”, i.e., activities that received remuneration directly or indirectly, in cash or in kind.
In 1947 the 6th ICLS adopted a resolution that defined the labour force, employment and unemployment mainly on the basis of the activity of each individual during a specified period, which was a departure from the “gainful worker” concept. In 1954, the 8th ICLS revised this resolution that provided detailed definitions for these concepts as well as recommendations on the scope and nature of these statistics that were to be produced.
National statistics on the labour force, employment and unemployment and ILO compilation activities
Most countries in the world produce statistics on the labour force, employment and unemployment at least every ten years, through their Population Census, or more often, through general household surveys, such as the Living Conditions Surveys or through more specialised labour force surveys. Employment statistics for salaried workers are also available through establishment surveys or censuses. Countries with a social security system that offers wide coverage can also produce meaningful employment statistics; similarly countries with widespread employment services produce good quality unemployment statistics.
The ILO has been compiling national labour force statistics since the 1930s. The online database Laborsta contains statistical series on the labour force by sex, age group, industry, occupation and status in employment since 1945, and of employment and unemployment since 1969.