The figure shows the average weeks of an unemployment spell from 1948 through last month. There’s an upward drift over the full series due in part to the aging of the workforce—older people take longer to get jobs.
But that’s not what’s going on now. What’s going on now is an unprecedented mismatch in the number of people who need work and the number of available job slots. And any policy maker who could do something about that high supply/low demand imbalance but choices not to, or who argues the spike in long-term unemployment can be fixed with budget cuts, or by shutting down the EPA…he or she should get out of the way and let someone else take over.
The average weeks of an unemployment spell just topped 40 for the first time on record–the average over the whole series is about 14 weeks. One look at the magnitude of the joblessness problem we face suggests that working families simply do not have the luxury of political or ideological posturing by policy makers who would block a serious jobs plan.
Update: A commenter makes an excellent point that I forgot about. The average duration graph is biased up in terms of historical comparisons because in 2011 the BLS increased the number of years of unemployment that you were allowed to report on the underlying survey that collects these data from up to 2 years to up to 5 years. Absent the change–i.e., under the old topcode regime of up to 2 year jobless spells–you’d shave 2-3 weeks off the 2011 values in the graph. This does not change the substance of my argument, however. In fact, the median duration of unemployment spells was unaffected by the topcode change, and here is that picture, which is just as historically unprecedented and equally discomforting.
BLS Median Length of Unemployment Spells, 1967-2011