Official unemployment

Note - Reweighting and revision of Labour Force Survey unemployment estimates since the three months ending March 2020

Owing to the pandemic, the way the Office for National Statistics (ONS) undertakes the Labour Force Survey (LFS) has changed. The ONS had to replace the initial face to face LFS interviews with telephone interviews. This has resulted in more owner occupiers responding and fewer renters (and is therefore possibly a less representative sample). The ONS do not know why the change has happened. However, as a result, the ONS have reweighted the estimates derived from the LFS for the three month period from January 2020 to March 2020 onwards. This has resulted in revisions to the LFS unemployment rates of +0.1 or +0.2 percentage points for previously published data to the three months ending July 2020.

As a result of the reweighting methodology applied to the LFS estimates for the three months ending August 2020, the sampling variability figures (the +/- statistical confidence intervals) are not available this month. The ONS will update these with the next Labour market release on 10 November 2020.

Further details are provided in the ONS article 'Coronavirus and its impact on the Labour Force Survey', last updated on the 13 October 2020.

Summary for the United Kingdom and the North West region

For the three-month period from December 2020 to February 2021, the total number of unemployed people was estimated to be 1,675,000 (+/- 90,000) in the United Kingdom and 191,000 persons (+/- 30,000) in the North West region.

The North West unemployment rate was estimated at 5.3% (+/- 0.8 percentage points). For the UK, the rate was estimated at 4.9% (+/- 0.3 percentage points).

The highest regional unemployment rate in the UK for the three months ending February 2021 was estimated to be in London at 7.2% (+/- 1.0 percentage point). The lowest rate was estimated to be in the South East of England at 3.4% (+/- 0.5 percentage points).

Quarterly and yearly changes

Owing to the 95% statistical confidence intervals associated with the estimates for both unemployment numbers and rates, the differences over the previous quarter and the previous year are usually not large enough to be statistically different. The figures in table 1 provide an indication of the latest movements.

Table 1: Official unemployment figures for the United Kingdom and North West region for the three months from December 2020 to February 2021

Unemployed persons aged 16 and over,

as a percentage of economically active persons, seasonally adjusted

  Unemployed

Unemployment

- quarterly change

Unemployment

- yearly change

Area number rate (%) in number percent in rate in number percent in rate
All Persons
United Kingdom 1,675,000 4.9 -50,000 -2.9 -0.1 311,000 22.8 0.9
North West 191,000 5.3 22,000 12.8 0.6 32,000 20.4 1.0
Males
United Kingdom 919,000 5.2 -44,000 -4.5 -0.2 156,000 20.5 1.0
North West 98,000 5.2 12,000 14.1 0.7 7,000 7.7 0.5
Females
United Kingdom 755,000 4.6 -6,000 -0.8 0.0 154,000 25.7 1.0
North West 92,000 5.3 10,000 11.5 0.5 25,000 37.7 1.5

Notes: Numbers may not sum owing to rounding. All figures are estimates and monthly and yearly changes should be treated as indicative only. The change in the number unemployed and the percentage change in the number unemployed in table 1 above reflect the change of the actual unrounded unemployment data (rather than the rounded figures published above).

Source: Office for National Statistics – Statistical Bulletins - Labour market overview, UK: April 2021 (Summary, table 1 and download table A02 SA (seasonally adjusted) and Labour market in the regions of the UK: April 2021 (download data table H102).

The relatively low levels of unemployment may seem surprising given the Covid-19 impact on the economy. However, to be unemployed, someone has to say that they do not have a job and that they are currently actively seeking and available for work. 

Currently, a large number of people are estimated to be temporarily away from work (furloughed or receiving monies from the Self-Employment Income Support Scheme (SEISS)). Under the International Labour Organization (ILO) definition, employment includes both those who are in work during the reference period and those who are temporarily away from a job. Furloughed workers and other workers temporarily away from work are therefore still classified as being employed (and not unemployed). Provisional estimates at 31 January 2021 showed that approximately 4.704 million eligible employments in the UK were furloughed (16%). In addition, up to 31 January 2021, provisional figures show a further 2.19 million people in the UK had made claims for financial support from the third Self-Employment Income Support Scheme (SEISS)). This represented 65% of the total potentially eligible (SEISS) population of 3.37 million people. Analysis by the ONS had shown that the youngest workers, oldest workers and those in manual or elementary occupations were those most likely to be temporarily away from paid work during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

It is also possible to identify certain groups who are economically inactive as they are not currently looking for work but may look for work in the future. These are primarily those who want a job but are not yet looking; however, it also includes those who report they do not want a job but either do not believe jobs are available, are not yet looking, or are inactive for some other unspecified reason. 

Between January to March 2020 and April to June 2020, the number in these groups – the inactive who may begin to seek work and who are temporarily away from work for coronavirus-related reasons, without earnings – increased by 1.03 million to 2.13 million. This increase of people who are around the fringes of unemployment may explain why unemployment under the ILO definition has not increased as much as expected.

Between April to June 2020 and May to July 2020, the number of people in these groups decreased from 2.13 million to 2.03 million. This decrease in the number of people who are around the fringes of unemployment coupled with the observed increase in unemployment suggests that some of the people who could have potentially been seeking employment in the previous period (April to June 2020) were actually seeking employment in May to July 2020.

Data comparing changes for these groups between May to July 2020 and June to August 2020, were not published in the statistical bulletin 'Labour market overview, UK: October 2020', published on 13 October 2020.

Estimates for July to September 2020 show 8.66 million people aged between 16 and 64 years were economically inactive, 46,000 more than a year earlier and 21,000 more than the previous quarter.

Looking at estimates of flows between employment, unemployment and economic inactivity between April to June 2020 and July to September 2020, there was a net flow of:

  • 133,000 from employment to economic inactivity
  • 1,000 from unemployment to employment
  • 215,000 from economic inactivity to unemployment; the largest net flow from inactivity to unemployment on record

Commentary for the above section has been compiled from the statistical bulletin 'Labour market overview, UK: August 2020', published by the Office for National Statistics on the 11 August 2020, the statistical bulletin 'Labour market overview, UK: September 2020', published by the Office for National Statistics on the 15 September 2020, and the statistical bulletin 'Labour market overview, UK: November 2020', published by the Office for National Statistics on the 10 November 2020. Further data was sourced from the HM Revenue & Customs, Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme (CJRS) statistics to 30 September 2020 (published 25 November 2020) and HM Revenue & Customs Self-Employment Income Support Scheme statistics to 31 October 2020 (published 25 November 2020).

UK unemployment over the past year and recent context

The UK unemployment rate for the three months ending February 2021 (4.9%) is the joint third highest within the previous year (ignoring statistical confidence intervals). The UK rate fluctuated between 3.9% and 5.1% for the remainder of the previous year. A rate of 5.0% was estimated for the three months ending January 2021 and a rate of 5.1% was estimated for the three months ending December 2020.

The trend for the UK unemployment rate has generally been increasing since the three months ending December 2019 when it was 3.8%. However, the latest two estimates have fallen.

Owing to the LFS survey methodology being based on rolling three month periods, the latest estimates should not be compared with the immediate previous two periods, but with the previous quarter. For the latest data covering the three months from December 2020 to February 2021, the earliest comparison should be made with estimates covering the three months from September 2020 to November 2020.

For more than three and a quarter years, between the three months ending April 2017 and the three months ending August 2020, the UK unemployment rate changed by a relatively small amount, varying between 4.5% and 3.8% (+/- 0.2 percentage points). The lowest UK rate since April 2017 (3.8%) was estimated on eight occasions, for the three months ending March 2019, April 2019, May 2019, July 2019, September 2019, October 2019, November 2019 and December 2019. The number of people unemployed in the UK for the three months ending October 2019 (1,280,503) was the lowest since the three months ending November 1975 (1,286,000). 

UK unemployment - series low point

Since the three months ending March 1971, the lowest unemployment rate in the UK series was estimated for the three months ending December 1973 (3.4%) and the three months ending January 1974 (3.4%). The lowest number of unemployed people in the series (888,000) was estimated for the three months ending December 1973.

UK unemployment - previous highs

Following the 1980/81 recession

Since 1971, the highest UK unemployment rate was estimated at 11.9% for the three months ending April 1984, May 1984 and June 1984. The greatest unemployment total in the UK since 1971 was 3,278,000 persons, for the three months ending May 1984. These figures followed the 1980/81 recession (a decline in GDP for five quarters, from Q1 in 1980, to Q1 in 1981).

Following the 1990/91 recession

Unemployment in the UK rose again following the 1990/91 recession (a decline in GDP for five quarters, from Q3 in 1990, to Q3 in 1991). The UK unemployment rate peaked at 10.7% for the three months ending February 1993 after the 1990/91 recession. Unemployment numbers in the UK reached 3,023,283 people, also for the three months ending February 1993. 

Following the 2008/09 recession

Following the financial crash in 2007 and the 2008/09 recession (a decline in GDP for five quarters, from Q2 in 2008, to Q2 in 2009), the unemployment rate in the UK reached a high of 8.5% for the three months ending November 2011. The UK unemployment total reached 2,712,799 people, also for the three months ending November 2011.

North West unemployment over the past year and recent context

The North West unemployment rate for the three months ending February 2021 (5.3%) is the highest within the previous year (ignoring statistical confidence intervals). The North West rate fluctuated between 3.7% and 5.1% for the remainder of the previous year. 

The trend for the total unemployment rate in the North West has generally been increasing since the three months ending July 2020 when it was 3.7%.

Between the three months ending February 2017, and the three months ending August 2020 (three and a half years), the regional unemployment rate fluctuated relatively little, varying between 4.5% (+/- 0.6 percentage points) and 3.6% (+/- 0.6 percentage points).

North West unemployment - series low point

The lowest North West rate in the series, since the spring of 1992, was estimated for the three months ending January 2019 ((3.6% (+/- 0.6 percentage points)). The lowest number of people unemployed in the North West for the series was also estimated for the three months ending January 2019 (131,064 people). Prior to the 2008/09 recession, the lowest rate in the North West was 4.3%, estimated for the three months ending August 2004. The lowest unemployment total in the region prior to the 2008/2009 recession was 142,681 persons, also estimated for the three months ending August 2004.

North West unemployment - previous highs

Please note that the North West labour market statistical series only started from the three months ending May 1992.

Following the 1990/91 recession

Since the spring of 1992, the highest North West unemployment rate was estimated at 11.2% for the three months ending March 1993. The North West unemployment total reached a peak of 362,129 persons, also for the three months ending March 1993. These figures followed the 1990/91 recession (a decline in GDP for five quarters, from Q3 in 1990, to Q3 in 1991). The regional statistical series started from the three months ending May 1992, so these figures may not be the highest.

Following the 2008/09 recession

Following the financial crash in 2007 and the 2008/09 recession, the unemployment rate in the North West reached a high of 9.5% for the three months ending March 2012, and for the three months ending May 2012. The North West unemployment total reached 337,058 persons for the three months ending May 2012.

Figure 1: Official unemployment rates (all persons) for the North West and United Kingdom to the three months ending February 2021 

Figure 2: Official unemployment rates (males and females) for the North West and United Kingdom to the three months ending February 2021

Figure 3: Official UK unemployment numbers (all persons, males and females), three months to March 1971, to the three months ending February 2021

Figure 4:  Official NW unemployment numbers (all persons, males and females), three months to May 1992, to the three months ending February 2021

Note: Owing to the three month survey sample methodology, the latest data should only be compared with estimates from the previous quarter (September 2020 to November 2020 in this instance) and earlier. Numbers and rates have been reweighted from the three-month period ending March 2020 onwards. The reweighting took place with the October 2020 release of data (with estimates for the three-month period ending August 2020).
Source: Office for National Statistics - Labour market overview, UK (Summary, table 1 and download table A02 SA (seasonally adjusted), and Regional labour market statistics in the UK (download data table H102).
 

Male unemployment estimates

North West male unemployment, recent context, high and low points

For the three months ending January 2021, the male unemployment rate in the North West was 4.8%. This is lower than the high point over the last year of 5.2%, estimated for the three months ending September 2020 (please note that statistical confidence intervals for males and females are not published).

The lowest male unemployment rate in the series for the region (3.8% (revised up from 3.6%)) was recorded for the three months ending June 2020. Between the three-month period ending February 2017 and the three months ending February 2021 (four years), the male unemployment rate in the region mainly fluctuated between 3.8% (revised) and 4.9%. A male rate of 5.2% were estimated for three months ending September 2020 and the three months ending February 2021. A rate of 5.1% for men was recorded for the three months ending October 2020. Ignoring confidence intervals, these were the highest three rates since the three months ending January 2017 (5.4%).

Male North West unemployment highs following the 1990/91 recession 

Since the spring of 1992, the highest male unemployment rate in the North West was estimated at 13.1% for the three months ending July 1992, the three months ending January 1993, and the three months ending February 1993. The male unemployment total was the greatest in the North West region for the three months ending July 1992 (238,882 people). These figures followed the 1990/91 recession. The regional statistical series started from the three months ending May 1992, so these figures may not be the highest.

Male North West unemployment highs following the 2008/09 recession

Following the financial crash in 2007 and the 2008/09 recession, the male unemployment rate in the North West reached 10.7% for the three months ending September 2009, and a second higher peak of 10.8% for the three months ending May 2012. The male unemployment total in the North West reached 204,509 persons for the three months ending May 2012.

UK male unemployment, recent context, high and low points

In the UK, the unemployment rate for men was 5.2% for the three months ending February 2021. This is the fourth highest UK male unemployment rate since the three months ending September 2015 when the rate was 5.5% (please note that statistical confidence intervals for males and females are not published). Since the three months ending August 2020, the male UK unemployment rate has fluctuated between 4.9% and 5.4%.

For three years, between the three months ending July 2017 (4.4%), and the three months ending July 2020 (4.5%), the male UK unemployment rate varied relatively little, moving between 4.5% (revised up from 4.4%) and 3.9% (estimated for the three months ending December 2019).

Male UK unemployment - series low point

Since the UK time series began in 1971, the lowest male unemployment rate in the UK was estimated at 2.7% for the three months ending November 1973, for the three months ending December 1973, and for the three months ending January 1974. The lowest number of unemployed men in the series (428,000) was estimated for the three months ending December 1973.

Male UK unemployment high following the 1980/81 recession

The UK male unemployment rate following the 1980/81 recession was not as high as the level it reached after the 1990/91 recession. The UK unemployment rate for men rose to 12.2% for the three months ending May, June, July, August and September 1983 after the 1980/81 recession. Male unemployment numbers in the UK reached 1,940,000 people, for the three months ending July 1983. Please note, however, that UK female unemployment was higher in the aftermath of the 1980/81 recession (than after the 1990/91 recession). This resulted in the overall total UK unemployment rate being higher after the 1980/81 recession (than after the 1990/91 recession).

Male UK unemployment high following the 1990/91 recession 

Since 1971, the highest male UK unemployment rate was estimated at 12.7% for the three months ending February 1993 and March 1993. The greatest male unemployment total in the UK since 1971 was 2,010,852 persons, for the three months ending March 1993. These figures followed the 1990/91 recession.

Male UK unemployment high following the 2008/09 recession

Following the financial crash in 2007 and the 2008/09 recession, the male unemployment rate in the UK reached a high of 9.1% for the three months ending March 2010, and for the three months ending November 2011 (a second peak). The UK male unemployment total reached 1,559,278 men, for the three months ending November 2011.

Female unemployment estimates

North West female unemployment, recent context, high and low points

The unemployment rate for women in the region was 5.3% for the three months ending February 2021. This is the second highest female unemployment rate in the North West since the three months ending September 2015 when the rate was 5.5% (over five and a quarter years). Please note that statistical confidence intervals for males and females are not published. A rate of 5.5% was last estimated for the three months ending January 2021 for women in the North West. 

The female unemployment rate in the region has been rising since the three months ending July 2020 when it was 3.4%.

The lowest unemployment rate for women in the North West since the spring of 1992 was 3.2%, estimated for the three months ending January 2019.

Between the three months ending November 2015 when the estimated rate was 4.8% and the three months ending December 2020 when the estimated rate was 4.9%, the North West female unemployment rate had been below 5.0%. Furthermore, the female rate in the region was at, or below 4.0% for the majority of the time between the three months ending February 2017 and the three months ending September 2020 (for more than three and a half years). Within this later period, the female unemployment rate in the North West varied from 3.2% to 4.4%.

Female North West unemployment highs following the 1990/91 recession

Since the spring of 1992, the highest female unemployment rate in the North West was estimated at 9.0% for the three months ending April 1993. The North West female unemployment figure reached 129,284 women, also for the three months ending April 1993. These figures followed the 1991/92 recession. The regional statistical series started from the three months ending May 1992, so these figures may not be the highest.

Female North West unemployment highs following the 2008/09 recession

Following the financial crash in 2007 and the 2008/09 recession, the female unemployment rate in the North West reached 8.5% for the three months ending February 2012, the three months ending March 2012, and the three months ending April 2012. The female unemployment total in the North West reached a peak for the series of 139,439 persons for the three months ending April 2012.

UK female unemployment, recent context, high and low points

For women in the UK, the unemployment rate was 4.6% for the three months ending February 2021. This was the fourth highest female unemployment rate since the three months ending August 2016 when a rate of 4.9% was estimated. A rate of 4.8% was estimated for the three months ending December 2020. A rate of 4.7% was estimated for the three months ending January 2021. Please note that statistical confidence intervals for males and females are not published.

The recent trend for the UK female unemployment rate has generally been increasing since the three months ending October 2019 when the rate was 3.5%. 

Between the three months ending May 2016 (4.8%) and the three months ending February 2021 (4.6%), the female unemployment rate in the UK has varied by a relatively small amount, fluctuating between 4.9% (estimated for the three months ending August 2016) and 3.5% (estimated for the three months ending October 2019).

Female UK unemployment high following the 1980/81 recession

Since 1971, the highest female UK unemployment rate was estimated at 11.8% for the three months ending May 1984, and the three months ending June 1984. The greatest unemployment numbers for women in the UK since 1971 was 1,349,000 women, for the three months ending May 1984. These figures followed the 1980/81 recession.

Female UK unemployment high following the 1990/91 recession

Female unemployment in the UK rose again following the 1990/91 recession. However, the rise in the number of unemployed women was not as great as that following the 1980/81 recession and was much lower than the increase in male unemployment during the early 90s economic downturn. The female UK unemployment rate peaked at 8.1% for the three months ending February 1993 after the 1990/91 recession. Female unemployment numbers in the UK reached 1,013,284 women, also for the three months ending February 1993

Female UK unemployment high following the 2008/09 recession

Following the financial crash in 2007 and the 2008/09 recession, the unemployment rate for women in the UK reached a high of 7.8% for the three months ending November 2011. The number of unemployed females in the UK reached 1,153,522 women, also for the three months ending November 2011. This was greater than the figure reached during the early 1990's downturn (1,013,284 women), but lower than the figure reached during the 1980's downturn (1,349,000 women).

Caution interpreting change in unemployment data

In general, changes in the unemployment numbers (and especially the unemployment rates) between 3 month periods are small, and are not usually greater than the level that is explainable by sampling variability. In practice, this means that small, short-term movements in reported rates (for example, within +/- 0.3 percentage points at the UK level, and within +/- 0.7 percentage points at the NW level) should be treated as indicative, and considered alongside medium and long-term patterns in the series, plus corresponding movements in administrative sources, where available, to give a more complete picture

The (+/-) sampling variability estimates are calculated on non-seasonally adjusted data.

Owing to the LFS survey methodology being based on rolling three month periods, the latest estimates should not be compared with the immediate previous two periods, but with the previous quarter. 

The confidence intervals prior to the June to August 2015 period are not readily available and caution should be applied when comparing more recent estimates (with confidence intervals) with prior data (without confidence intervals).

The confidence intervals for males and females are not published. These will be much greater (roughly double) than those for all persons. 

A rate can change because of an increase or decrease in the economically active denominator (even if the number unemployed (the numerator) does not change). 

 

Page updated 6 May 2021.