It normally sounds pretty obvious – you work out the unemployment rate by looking at the number of people in work and the number of people seeking work. But sometimes that leads to rather odd figures, as today’s youth unemployment figures demonstrate.
The Guardian’s headline, One in five young people out of work (headline used on Guardian news page; there’s a longer slightly different headline on the story itself), s pretty typical.
But take your way to page 36, Table 14 and look at the raw numbers and it looks rather different.
Number of 16-24 year-olds: 7,337,000.
Number of 16-24 year-olds unemployed: 963,000
In other words, that looks more like a 13% unemployment rate than a 20% one.
The reason for the difference? It’s predominantly the large number of 16-24 year olds who are economically inactive because they are in education. There are 2,610,000 economically inactive in this age group. Take that away from the total number of 16-24 year-olds and you get the 20% rather than 13% unemployment rate.
At one level, the 20% unemployment rate is the ‘correct’ figure to quote and you can see why the Office of National Statistics quotes it – because ignoring the economically inactive is the usual way these figures are calculated.
But when you change the language around as The Guardian did (and plenty of other media outlets also do) to phrases such as “20% of young people out of work” and that’s no longer accurate.
No surprise perhaps that someone in the ONS press office said to me today that this is an issue that keeps on coming up in queries with them. But so far at least, whilst the ONS numbers are right the way they get presented in the media often isn’t.
(And yes, 13% is still a number that should be brought down. But if you think there’s not much of an issue between saying 20% or 13% ask yourself this: supposing the figures had always been calculated in the way that gave 20% and the government proposed changing the method of calculation to the 13% one. Would you say ‘ah, no big deal’?).