Okun’s Law

Okun’s Law is an empirically observed relationship between unemployment and economic growth, suggesting that for every 1% increase in unemployment, a country’s GDP will be roughly an additional 2% lower than its potential GDP.
Updated: Jun 27, 2024

3 key takeaways

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  • Okun’s Law posits a negative relationship between changes in unemployment and GDP growth, indicating that higher unemployment is associated with lower GDP growth.
  • The law is named after American economist Arthur Okun, who first described this relationship in the early 1960s.
  • Okun’s Law is often used by economists and policymakers to estimate the impact of unemployment on economic output and to develop strategies for promoting economic growth and reducing unemployment.

What is Okun’s Law?

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Okun’s Law is a macroeconomic concept that describes the inverse relationship between the rate of unemployment and the rate of GDP growth. Formulated by economist Arthur Okun, the law suggests that when unemployment rises, GDP falls, and conversely, when unemployment decreases, GDP tends to increase. The law quantifies this relationship, typically stating that a 1% increase in the unemployment rate is associated with a 2% decrease in GDP from its potential level.

Key principles of Okun’s Law

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  • Empirical relationship: Okun’s Law is based on empirical observations rather than a strict theoretical framework. It has been confirmed by data in many countries, although the exact coefficients can vary.
  • Output gap: The law helps to explain the output gap, which is the difference between actual GDP and potential GDP. Potential GDP is the maximum output an economy can achieve at full employment.
  • Policy implications: Okun’s Law is used to assess the impact of labor market conditions on economic performance and to design policies aimed at reducing unemployment and stimulating growth.

Formula of Okun’s Law

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The relationship described by Okun’s Law can be expressed with the following formula:

[ \text{Percentage change in GDP} = k – c \times \text{Change in unemployment rate} ]


  • ( k ) is the intercept term representing potential GDP growth when unemployment is stable.
  • ( c ) is the coefficient that quantifies the impact of a change in the unemployment rate on GDP growth. Okun originally estimated ( c ) to be approximately 2.

Applications of Okun’s Law

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Okun’s Law has several practical applications:

  • Economic forecasting: Economists use Okun’s Law to predict changes in GDP based on changes in unemployment, providing valuable insights for economic forecasting.
  • Policy evaluation: Policymakers use the law to evaluate the effectiveness of employment policies and to estimate the potential economic impact of labor market interventions.
  • Business planning: Businesses use the relationship to anticipate economic conditions based on labor market trends, aiding in strategic planning and decision-making.

Limitations and criticisms

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While Okun’s Law is a useful tool, it has several limitations:

  • Variability: The exact relationship between unemployment and GDP growth can vary across different countries, time periods, and economic conditions. Factors such as labor market flexibility, technological advancements, and structural changes can influence the coefficients.
  • Simplicity: The law simplifies the complex relationship between unemployment and GDP growth, omitting other factors that can impact economic performance, such as inflation, monetary policy, and global economic conditions.
  • Short-term focus: Okun’s Law is most applicable to short-term economic fluctuations. Over the long term, other factors, such as productivity growth and demographic changes, play a more significant role in determining GDP.

Empirical evidence

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Empirical studies have generally supported Okun’s Law, although the strength and stability of the relationship can vary:

  • United States: Okun originally based his findings on U.S. data, where he found a consistent relationship between unemployment changes and GDP growth.
  • International studies: Subsequent research has confirmed similar relationships in other countries, though with different coefficients. For example, European countries often show a weaker relationship due to labor market rigidities.
  • Recent data: Some studies suggest that the relationship has weakened in recent decades, potentially due to changes in the nature of work, technological advancements, and global economic integration.
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If you found the concept of Okun’s Law interesting, you might also want to explore these related topics:

  • Phillips Curve: The relationship between inflation and unemployment, suggesting that low unemployment can lead to higher inflation and vice versa.
  • Potential GDP: The maximum output an economy can achieve when operating at full capacity, without generating inflationary pressures.
  • Output gap: The difference between actual GDP and potential GDP, indicating the level of economic slack or overheating.
  • Labor market dynamics: The study of factors influencing employment, unemployment, wages, and labor productivity.
  • Macroeconomic policy: Government policies aimed at managing the overall economy, including fiscal policy, monetary policy, and labor market interventions.

Understanding Okun’s Law is crucial for analyzing the interplay between unemployment and economic growth, helping policymakers and economists develop strategies to promote stable and sustainable economic performance.

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Arti is a specialized AI Financial Assistant at Invezz, created to support the editorial team. He leverages both AI and the Invezz.com knowledge base, understands over 100,000... read more.