Unemployment hits 4%: Is the job market softening?




The recent uptick in Australia's unemployment rate to above 4% in January, the first such increase in nearly two years, might seem like cause for concern. Economists, alongside the Reserve Bank and Federal Treasury, have been warning of a softening job market for months. With a mere 500 jobs created last month and 22,300 individuals added to the unemployment rolls, the situation appears grim at first glance. However, similar to the previous year, these figures can be misleading.

December witnessed a loss of 65,000 jobs, pushing the jobless rate to 3.9%. Then, in January 2023, there was a surprising drop of 11,500 new jobs, coupled with a 22,000 increase in unemployment, causing the jobless rate to climb to 3.7% from 3.5%.

The Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) cautioned against overinterpreting this anomaly, attributing it to the seasonal dynamics of the labor market. According to Bjorn Jarvis, head of labor statistics at ABS, January typically sees a flux of people leaving and starting new jobs, particularly after the conclusion of summer holidays. He emphasized that January 2024 mirrored similar patterns observed in 2022 and 2023, with an elevated number of unemployed individuals anticipating employment in the near future.

Despite the rise in unemployment, there was also a notable increase in the number of unemployed individuals expecting to commence work within the next four weeks. Jarvis suggested this could indicate a shift in the seasonal dynamics of the labor market post-summer holidays.

Comparing with historical data, around 5% of unemployed individuals in January 2022, 2023, and 2024 were associated with impending job placements, compared to around 4% in surveys conducted prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.

In February 2023, the jobless rate dipped to 3.5%, with over 64,000 new jobs added and a decrease of 16,000 in the number of unemployed individuals, resulting in a net gain of 49,000 new jobs.

Analyzing the hours worked, January 2023 witnessed a decrease of 40 million hours, or 2.1%. In contrast, January 2024 experienced a slight weakening, with a 2.5% decrease equivalent to 49 million hours worked. However, February 2023 saw a surge of 72 million hours worked, indicating a potential rebound.

As February unfolds, the forthcoming statistics on job creation and hours worked could provide valuable insights into the health and trajectory of the job market in 2024. Whether the trends observed in early 2023 will be replicated remains to be seen, but they could serve as critical indicators of the job market's resilience amidst evolving economic conditions.


Name Glenn Dyer

Glenn Dyer has been a finance journalist and TV producer for more than 40 years. He has worked at Maxwell Newton Publications, Queensland Newspapers, AAP, The Australian Financial Review, The Nine Network and Crikey.