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International Unemployment Comparisons

International Unemployment Comparisons

From an international perspective, the U.S. unemployment rate typically has looked a little better than average. This table compares unemployment rates for 1991, 1996, 2001, 2006 (just before the recession), and 2012 (somewhat after the recession) from several other high-income countries.

International Comparisons of Unemployment Rates

Country19911996200120062012
United States6.8%  5.4%4.8%  4.4%  8.1%
Canada9.8%  8.8%6.4%  6.2%  6.3%
Japan2.1%  3.4%5.1%  4.5%  3.9%
France9.5%12.5%8.7%10.1%10.0%
Germany5.6%  9.0%8.9%  9.8%  5.5%
Italy6.9%11.7%9.6%  7.8%10.8%
Sweden3.1%  9.9%5.0%  5.2%  7.9%
United Kingdom8.8%  8.1%5.1%  5.5%  8.0%

However, cross-country comparisons of unemployment rates need to be treated with care, because each country has slightly different survey tools for measuring unemployment and also different labor markets. For example, Japan’s unemployment rates appear quite low, but Japan’s economy has been mired in slow growth and recession since the late 1980s, and Japan’s unemployment rate probably paints too rosy a picture of its labor market. In Japan, workers who lose their jobs are often quick to exit the labor force and not look for a new job, in which case they are not counted as unemployed. In addition, Japanese firms are often quite reluctant to fire workers, and so firms have substantial numbers of workers who are on reduced hours or officially employed, but doing very little. This Japanese pattern is perhaps best viewed as an unusual method for society to provide support for the unemployed, rather than a sign of a healthy economy.

Note: We hear about the Chinese economy in the news all the time. The value of the Chinese yuan in comparison to the U.S. dollar is likely to be part of the nightly business report. So why is the Chinese economy not included in this discussion of international unemployment? The lack of reliable statistics is probably the reason. This article explains why.

Comparing unemployment rates in the United States and other high-income economies with unemployment rates in Latin America, Africa, Eastern Europe, and Asia is very difficult. One reason is that the statistical agencies in many poorer countries lack the resources and technical capabilities of the U.S. Bureau of the Census. But a more difficult problem with international comparisons is that in many low-income countries, most workers are not involved in the labor market through an employer who pays them regularly. Instead, workers in these countries are engaged in short-term work, subsistence activities, and barter. Moreover, the effect of unemployment is very different in high-income and low-income countries. Unemployed workers in the developed economies have access to various government programs like unemployment insurance, welfare, and food stamps; such programs may barely exist in poorer countries. Although unemployment is a serious problem in many low-income countries, it manifests itself in a different way than in high-income countries.


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