Unemployment in the U.S. dipped to 5.4% this spring. It was the lowest rate in the last seven years and shows the nation is recovering from the financial crisis of 2008. By way of comparison, historical research from Forecast-Chart.com finds the average U.S. unemployment rate from 1948 through the end of 2013 was 5.8%.
How does unemployment in America compare to the rest of the world? Let’s look at some extreme examples. Below are projections from the International Labor Organization (ILO). Remember that part-time workers are counted as employed, and that the figures don't count people who give up looking for work for an extended period of time. (For more, see: The Unemployment Rate: Get Real.)
Lowest Unemployment Rates
Papua New Guinea: 2.2%
(Source: International Labor Organization (ILO)
Most of the countries with the lowest unemployment are in southern Asia. But the African nations of Benin and Rwanda also make the list, as well as Qatar on the Arabian Peninsula in western Asia. Wherever they are, their unemployment rates are stunning – ranging from 0.3% to 2.3% – and all best the U.S. by a considerable margin. Looking at figures since 1948, Forecast-Chart.com says America achieved its lowest unemployment in May of 1953, when it hit 2.5%.
Of course, having a low unemployment rate does not mean a country's economy is particularly strong. For instance, Laos had only 1.4% unemployment in 2013, but its gross domestic product (GDP) per capita was only $1,660, according to the World Bank. Benin had 1% unemployment but per capita income of $805. Rwanda had 0.6% unemployment in 2013, but per capita income of $639, making it the poorest country on the list. Cambodia employed 99.7% of its workforce in 2013, but they too weren't paid much. Its per capita income was $1,007 that year, less than $3 a day. (For more, see: How to Calculate the GDP of a Country.)
These countries have low unemployment figures in large part because their economies rely heavily on subsistence farming, which is labor intensive, but seasonal. Remember that the underemployed are still counted in employment figures. Even Thailand, with a relatively healthy GDP per capita of $5,779 has more than 40% of its workforce involved in agriculture. Another factor driving up employment figures is the complete or near-complete lack of unemployment insurance in these nations. If you don't have a life preserver, you swim harder.
Of course, it's possible to have low unemployment and a rich economy. This combination is seen in Qatar and Macau, a semi-autonomous special administrative region of China. According to the World Bank, GDP per capita in Qatar was $93,700 in 2013, while in Macau it was $91,400. That wealth helps their standing in the chart, as a country's unemployment rate only factors in those actively looking for work. If you're the 23-year-old child of wealthy parents, you may be more inclined to spend money than earn it. (For more, see: Which Countries are Most Productive in Terms of GDP?)
Qatar's economy is driven by oil and natural gas, but it's been making a sustained push to diversify into financial services, manufacturing, construction and news media. Macau's economy centers on tourism – it's the world's largest gambling center. Gaming revenue dropped sharply in the last 12 months, but is still expected to pull more than $30 billion to the region this year.
As for the world's largest economies, here's a look at their lowest unemployment rates as of 2015 (listed by country GDP):
United States: 5.9%
United Kingdom: 5.9%
For some perspective, Greece was 44th in GDP in 2014 and has an unemployment rate of 24.6%. (For related reading, see: Countries Near Economic Collapse.)
Having looked at areas with the best employment figures, lets turn to those with the worst.
Highest Unemployment Rates
Bosnia and Herzegovina: 27.5%
Mauritania, on Africa's west coast, has the highest unemployment in the world, according to the ILO. It's also one of the poorest countries. The World Bank estimated its GDP per capita at only $2,230 in 2013. While Mauritania holds considerable iron, oil and natural gas deposits, much of its economy is still based on agriculture. When widespread droughts forced farmers and rural peoples into cities, it created huge numbers of jobless. The country also lacks infrastructure and is plagued by ethnic tension and the threat of terrorism, which limits foreign and homegrown investments and the jobs they would generate. The long-term unemployed aren't even Mauritania's most set-upon citizens. More than 150,000 of its people labor as slaves – 4% of the total population. Human rights groups say it has a higher percentage of slaves than any other country. (For more, see: What is the World Bank?)
Former Yugoslavia republics – Macedonia (28.2%) and Bosnia and Herzegovina (27.5%) each declared independence in 1991, but both have suffered from inter-ethnic conflict and failure to implement market reforms. As a larger country and member of the European Union, nearby Greece gets more negative press than either Macedonia or Bosnia, but it's unemployment figures are comparatively healthier at 24.6%.
The Bottom Line
Qatar has the lowest unemployment in the world and Mauritania the highest. By way of comparison, Forecast-Chart.com says America's post-war unemployment rate crested in November 1982 at 10.8%. While exactly twice the figure from spring 2015, it doesn’t seem so bad by comparison. (For more, see: Top Indicators from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.)