There are no reliable estimates for the number of unemployed persons across all of Switzerland for the period before 1914. Besides, the term "unemployment" was not yet clearly defined. It was not until the First World War and particularly after the introduction of the first Federal Act on Unemployment Insurance in 1924 that a national survey of unemployment was conducted. The unemployed were deemed to encompass those people who were involuntarily and temporarily without work. This definition distinguishes between the unemployed and the destitute in general. The unemployment funds had to send data regarding the number of insured and compensated persons to the federal authorities; the employment offices recorded the number of people who registered themselves as seeking employment.
The trend in the number of those seeking work (F9) and the unemployment rate (F10) in the 20th century exemplifies the effect of economic crises on employment – particularly during the global economic crisis of the 1930s but also during the 1970s (recession of 1974/1975), the 1990s (crisis of 1991-1994) and since the beginning of the 21st century (crises of 2002 and 2008).
These figures should be interpreted with care as not all job seekers are registered with an unemployment fund; these cases are therefore not included in the statistics. Between 1924 and the end of the 1970s, only a minority of workers were members of an unemployment fund (F11). Less than one in five workers were members of an unemployment fund when the recession of 1974/1975 hit. Swiss women as well as foreign workers were particularly underrepresented in unemployment funds; this explains the very low number of unemployed women recorded in the 1930s (F9). The national unemployment rate (F10) does not depict the significant regional differences within the country. In the 1930s, regions more reliant on the watchmaking industry as well as certain industrial towns and cities in eastern Switzerland exhibited an unemployment rate of 25 or even 30 per cent.
It was not until 1977 that almost all workers paid into unemployment insurance. That said, women with patchwork careers or reduced/part-time employment as well as foreign workers who were either unable to provide evidence of sufficient contributing months in Switzerland or whose residence permit was expiring were still not eligible for daily allowances.
The relatively low unemployment figures during the crisis of the 1970s can be explained by the fact that more than 150,000 seasonal workers were refused an extension of their permits. This practice allowed Switzerland to export a substantial portion of its unemployment to the migrant workers’ countries of origin. In comparison, the unemployment rate has remained at a comparably high level (for Swiss standards) since the crisis of the 1990s; the structural changes in the Swiss economy and the fragility of economic growth continues to have an impact on the employment situation.
With respect to expenditures (F2), the risk of unemployment has been of little consequence compared to the most important classes of social insurance: old age provision and health insurance. At the beginning of the 21st century, the cost of unemployment insurance (as a percentage of gross domestic product) was slightly higher than it was during the crisis of the 1930s. Back then, however, unemployment insurance accounted for no less than one fifth of overall expenditure on social insurance, while it was only one twentieth in 2005.