Unemployable Research Paper

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A person is said to be unemployable if he or she is unsuitable for any job. More precisely, someone is unemployable if there exists an absolute mismatch between his or her personal characteristics or attributes (including, for example, education, skills, experience, or physical fitness) and those currently demanded by employers. Unemployable persons are either chronically unemployed or else do not participate in the labor force at all.

Three important features of the contemporary view of unemployability can be associated with the definition given above. First, as is obvious from the definition, being unemployable is identified with the inability to secure any employment. Second, it is commonplace to focus on acquired characteristics (that are amenable to change) rather than innate characteristics (that are taken as given) when accounting for an individual’s status as unemployable. Third, following from the previous point, unem-ployability is viewed as a state that can and should be remedied by means of appropriate policy interventions. Unemployability has not always been viewed in this way, however. Historically, it has been associated with the ability to gain some employment, but for material reward that is insufficient to support an “adequate” standard of living. Moreover, there has, in the past, been a greater emphasis on innate rather than acquired characteristics when explaining the state of unemployable persons. This, in turn, encouraged a view of the unemployable as morally repugnant persons who needed to be dissociated from the “mainstream” labor force. These sentiments are evident to some degree even in the writings of radical or reform-minded critics of capitalism, such as Karl Marx, William Beveridge, and Beatrice and Sydney Webb.

Because unemployable persons are defined as lacking the attributes desired by employers—and in particular, the sort of human capital firms require—the inevitable tendency is to focus on individual choice and behavior as the ultimate cause of unemployability. However, it is possible that events beyond an individual’s control induce personal characteristics that make the individual unemployable. For example, the family environment and/or schooling that contribute to early childhood development may be responsible for making some individuals unemployable. Alternatively, chronic unemployment may cause skills to atrophy or even come to be regarded by employers as, in and of itself, a negative credential. This can result in an unemployed person eventually becoming unemployable. In this case, rather than unemployability resulting in chronic unemployment, it is chronic unemployment that causes a person to become unemployable—a process anticipated by Beveridge that is now associated with modern views of hysteresis in the labor market. Finally, the mismatch between individual attributes and employers’ requirements characteristic of unemployability may not arise because of any literal deficiency of individual attributes at all. Consider, for example, the effects of the geography of deindustrialization coupled with the relative geographical immobility of labor. It is possible for the skill set in which a geographically concentrated group of workers has invested to be rendered redundant by the decline or relocation of a regionally concentrated industry. This leaves workers with the wrong skills rather than no skills—too few for some remaining jobs, but too many for others—and thus suffering the absolute mismatch between individual attributes and employers’ requirements that renders them unsuitable for any job (at least within a regional context).

Whatever its causes, unemployability can be associated with a variety of social problems. Most obviously, since most individuals depend on the labor market for most of their income, unemployable persons may suffer severe material hardship. Since work also lends meaning and definition to the lives of most people, isolation from work caused by unemployability can lead to dissociative, antisocial behaviors such as violence and crime. It is not surprising, then, that numerous policy measures have been proposed to address the problem of unemployability. Some of these—such as welfare (or workfare) programs and earnings subsidies—are essentially permanent income maintenance schemes designed to offset the condition of unemployability. Other policies, however, seek to remedy the condition itself. For example, the strong association between unemployability and human capital deficiencies means that training schemes are a prominent feature of policy proposals to reduce the number of unemployable persons. If, however, former workers are made unemployable by geographically concentrated structural change as described earlier, broader regional development policies that focus not only on changing individual attributes (through retraining, for example) but also on the level and variety of economic activity in a region may have a role to play in redressing the problem of unemployability.


  1. Gray, D. 1996. Are Displaced Manufacturing Workers Unemployable? An Analysis of Sectorally Based Adjustment Costs in France. Canadian Journal of Economics 29 (Special Issue: Part 1): S84–S88.
  2. Komine, A. 2004. The Making of Beveridge’s Unemployment (1909): Three Concepts Blended. European Journal of the History of Economic Thought 11 (2): 255–280.
  3. LeBlanc, G. 2004. Optimal Income Maintenance and the “Unemployable.” Journal of Public Economic Theory 6 (3): 509–535.
  4. Scitovsky, T. 1996. My Own Criticism of The Joyless Economy. Critical Review 10 (4): 595–605.

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