Unemployment rate is a misleading indicator to the labor market, conventional or not?

As we know, the number of people at work is generally related to whether an economy is growing or not. In other words, unemployment can be thought of as a double-edged sword; when economic activity is high, more people are needed to produce the higher amount of goods and services. Thus, it is very important to measure different aspects of the labor market in order to get a better feel for the health of the economy. The unemployment rate is probably the best-known labor market measure and certainly one of the most widely quoted.

The last session of the ERF’s Conference “The Egyptian Labor Market in a Revolutionary Era: results from the 2012 survey (ELMPS)” was a panel discussion on the labor markets in Egypt; we had the chance to interview Ragui Assaad (University of Minnesota), who was one of the panelists.  He argues that the unemployment rate, while useful, does not take into account a number of important features of the labor market, for example, it doesn’t show how the economy is doing during economic crisis and its effect on the labor market.

But is the unemployment rate really the most accurate indicator to the health of the labor market?

While the unemployment rate may be considered as the most informative labor market indicator reflecting the general performance of the labor market and the economy as a whole, it does not say anything about the type of unemployment; whether it is cyclical; not having enough demand for labor to employ all those who are looking for work, or structural; a longer-lasting form of unemployment caused by fundamental shifts in an economy, such as workers’ lack of requisite job skills or inability to move out of their regions. Moreover, it does not take into consideration the informal sector which constitutes a large share of the Egyptian labor market.

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U-turn here and there

Did Egyptian workers become poorer or richer? Did the revolution affect how much Egyptians earn? Did inequality in earnings fall following the revolution? These are all questions that Dr. Mona Said tried to answer in her study titled “The Differential Dividends of Revolt? Wage and Inequality Adjustments in the Egyptian Labor Market in the Era of Financial Crisis and Revolution”. Through her study, Said wanted to examine what happens to real wages and whether inequality in wages has changed or not. She also wanted to see how the proportion of low waged individuals has evolved, and whether there is segregation in the labor market in Egypt.

Is the Egyptian labor force better or worse off? Rise and Fall
Using the four nation-wide labor force sample surveys (the 1988 LFSS, the 1998 ELMS, 2006 ELMPS and 2012 ELMPS), Said’s study found that wages took a U-turn in 2006; increasing following a period of wage erosion between 1988 and 1998. Real wages started rising again in Egypt by 2006, and rose even more in 2012, going back to the 1988 levels. Even though this is all good news to Egyptian labor, this is not the whole picture as the share of low waged workers has increased in 2012. The study shows that we witness an inverted U-shape in the share of workers who fall below the poverty line. Workers below the poverty line were 34% of the labor force in 1988, but this share increased in 1998, and increased again in 2012, following a fall in 2006. In addition, wage inequality rose in 2006, when compared to 1998, and remained stable since then.

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