Unemployment in the U.S. is at 4.1% in January 2018. It was the lowest rate in the last ten 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. annual unemployment rate from 1948 through September of 2017 was 5.80%.
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) for 2016. 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: How The Unemployment Rate affects Everybody.)
Lowest Unemployment Rates
Lao People's DR: 0.3%
(Source: International Labor Organization (ILO))
Most of the countries with the lowest unemployment are in southern Asia. But the African nations of Niger 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 0.1% to 1.0% – 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 0.3% unemployment in 2016, but its gross domestic product (GDP) per capita was only $1,642, according to the World Bank. Niger had 0.2% unemployment in 2016, but GDP per capita of $363, making it the poorest country on the list. Cambodia employed 99.9% of its workforce in 2016. Its GDP per capita was $1,269 that year, less than $4 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 $5,908 has 34.7% 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. According to the World Bank, GDP per capita in Qatar was $59,331 in 2016. 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.
As for the world's largest economies, here's a look at their lowest unemployment rates in 2017 (listed by country GDP):
United States: 4.1%
United Kingdom: 4.3%
For some perspective, Greece was 48th in nominal GDP in 2016 and has an unemployment rate of 23.3%. (For related reading, see: Countries Near Economic Collapse.)
Having looked at areas with the best employment figures, lets turn to those with the worst (2016).
Highest Unemployment Rates
Occupied Palestinian: 27.0%
Lesotho, encircled by South Africa, has the highest unemployment in the world in 2016, according to the ILO (age:15+). It's also one of the poorest countries. The World Bank estimated its GDP per capita at only $998 in 2016. Lesotho is a small and mountainous country, previously a protectorate of Britain (declared its independence in 1966). The unemployment rate has remained high above 20%, along with extreme income inequality and poverty.
Swaziland(26.3%) and Mozambique (25.2%) both suffer from extreme poverty and the world’s highest HIV/AIDS prevalence rate, according to CIA. Productivity declines greatly due to HIV/AIDS as households lose manpower. The economies are hence weak with persistent high unemployment rates.
The Bottom Line
Qatar has the lowest unemployment in the world and Lesotho the highest. By way of comparison, Forecast-Chart.com says America's post-war unemployment rate crested in November 1982 at 10.8%. While around twice the figure from 2017, it doesn't seem so bad by comparison.