How do I report employment stats responsibly?
I’m trying to decide if my obsession with labour force figures comes from a genuine curiosity and appreciation of their importance or the ease with which one finds said numbers.
I’m thinking that it’s the former, given that I wouldn’t be asking the question in the title if I weren’t somewhat genuine in my concern.
Nearly a decade ago I sat in an economics lecture and nodded along as the person at the front complained that the media were daft if they reported volume figures for unemployment and should have been reporting the rate instead.
I didn’t fully appreciate the need for that choice until this week when I started charting the buggers.
Not only did I realise that the volume figures told me nothing about the real size of the problem (10,000 new unemployed means nothing if the workforce population just blew out by a million), but that even the unemployment rate was useless as a headline figure; the compression of data just squeezes all the insight out of it.
So, like the good baby-journalist that I am, I dug deeper.
This wasn’t hard, underemployment and underutilisation figures have been reported by the ABS since the late 70s and come out literally right next to the data that usually gets reported.
ABS: 1 Media: 0
Yesterday I included underutilisation in my labour force data dashboard (published on all good APN news sites near you) but still felt like I wasn’t able to understand the real shape of employment in Australia.
There are near-constant cries about unemployment on our news sites and I couldn’t really reconcile that with the headline figure. 5.4%? Are you kidding? That’s a decent holiday retail season away from us having problems with demand-pull inflation! (citation needed).
My brother Anthony reminded me of just how exceedingly bullshit the ABS’s definition of employment is. 1 hour worked for pay each week or 14 hours at home or on a farm unpaid and you’re employed.
So how many people are in the group between unemployed and able to put food on the table. I argued that this was captured by the underemployment rate but Anthony pressed harder, that there’s no way to tell the difference between someone who works one hour and wants more employment and someone who works 25 hours and can feed themselves, but wants more employment.
Back to the stats I went and found the figures for hours worked. I haven’t really gotten to know them intimately yet but they seem to be what they say they are. I’ll be including them as well.
Unfortunately there’s no way I can see that the readily available figures can tell me who is underemployed AND works how many hours.
If someone works an hour a week and is fine with that because their partner maintains the bacon supply, I don’t want to capture them in the numbers for people who are being missed by the headline figures.
Initial investigations suggest that I’ll need to contact the ABS and get these figures specifically.
Any advice on the matter would be greatly appreciated.
I get the feeling that this isn’t the only valid criticism of the reportage of labour force figures in Australia. If you know of any others, please leave a comment in the comment section below.