FYI: How the unemployment rate is calculated in the US
There is a common misconception that the unemployment rate has something to do with the number of people collecting unemployment checks, and thus is much lower than the "real" unemployment levels because it doesn't count people whose benefits have run out or who never qualified for benefits. Actually, the unemployment rate has nothing to do with the number of people collecting unemployment benefits! Every month the US Census Bureau conducts the Current Population Survey of households, and the Bureau of Labor Statistics uses this data to calculate the unemployment rate for the US and various states and urban areas. You can read about this process in detail here: http://www.bls.gov/cps/cps_htgm.htm However, the unemployment rate does indeed not count some people who should perhaps be considered for a more accurate picture. "Discouraged" workers are people who are not working and may want jobs, but have given up actively searching for a job. Because they are not actively searching for work they are not counted as part of the labor force and thus are not included in the unemployment rate. (Previously discouraged workers re-entering the labor force in search of work when they perceive the employment market having improved is why the unemployment rate will often INCREASE at the beginning of an economic recovery, despite more people finding jobs.) The underemployed -- people who are working part time but want to work full time, or people who are working at jobs far below their ability and desired pay -- are not counted in the unemployment rate either. There are three types of unemployment -- cyclical, frictional, and structural. Cyclical is the unemployment rate that goes up and down with the business cycle, rising when real GDP falls (recession) and falling when real GDP rises (expansion). Frictional unemployment is the normal churn in the economy of people moving from job to job. Structural unemployment is the part of unemployment that results from the mismatch of worker skills and jobs, when the type of jobs available in the economy changes due to technological progress, trade, etc. The economy is considered to be at "full employment" when it is at the "natural rate of unemployment", or when there is no cyclical unemployment. In the US the natural rate of unemployment is considered by most economists to be somewhere between 4% and 5.5%. Historically, unemployment in the US has averaged about 6-7%, but was unusually low (~4%) from 1997-2001. The current unemployment rate of 5.2% is actually historically relatively low and within the range of the natural rate of unemployment, but may still seem too high to people whose expectations were set by the low unemployment rate in the late 1990s. You can find current and historical data on the unemployment rate for the US, states, and local areas here: http://www.bls.gov/bls/employment.htm That's a pretty basic overview, but hopefully it helps make the unemployment situation in the US more understandable.