The highest and lowest unemployment rates in the world vary dramatically, even among the world's largest economies.
Unemployment in the U.S., the largest economy, was at 3.5% at the end of February in 2020—the lowest rate in half a century—but rose to 4.4% in March in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic and its economic impact. The Congressional Budget Office expects the unemployment rate to exceed 10% in the second quarter of 2020. By way of comparison, historical research shows the average U.S. annual unemployment rate from 1949 through 2019 was 5.8%.
Here's a look at the countries with the highest and lowest employments rates, and the unemployment rates of the world's largest economies, according to the most recent data available. As 2020 unfolds, these rates will be a moving target as the unprecedented economic fallout from COVID-19 unfolds and impacts countries around the world.
Highest Unemployment Rates
The world's highest unemployment rates at the end of 2019 were in Sub-Saharan Africa and occupied Palestine.
- Lesotho: 28.2%
- Eswatini: 26.5%
- Occupied Palestinian Territories: 26.4%
- Mozambique: 24.8%
Lesotho, encircled by South Africa, had one of the highest unemployment rates in the world in 2019. It's also one of the poorest countries. The World Bank estimated its gross domestic product (GDP) per capita at only $1,299 in 2018. Lesotho is a small and mountainous country, previously a protectorate of Britain (it declared its independence in 1966). The unemployment rate has remained high above 20%, along with extreme income inequality and poverty.
Eswatini and Mozambique both suffer from extreme poverty and the world’s highest HIV/AIDS prevalence rate, according to the CIA. Productivity declines greatly due to HIV/AIDS as households lose manpower.
Part-time workers are counted as employed, and the figures don't count people who give up looking for work for an extended period of time.
Lowest Unemployment Rates
Below are unemployment rates taken from various government sources. They have been updated with the most recent data, which are from the end of 2019.
- Qatar: 0.1%
- Cambodia: 0.3%
- Niger: 0.4%
- Belarus: 0.5%
- Laos: 0.7%
- Myanmar: 0.8%
- Bahrain: 1.2%
- Tonga: 1.2%
- Thailand: 1.4%
- Kuwait: 2.0%
Although covering a diverse area, the above countries have stunning unemployment rates—from 0.1% to 2.0%—and all bested the U.S. by a considerable margin at the end of 2019.
Unemployment Rates for the World's Largest Economies
The unemployment rates for the world's largest economies were predictably low at the end of 2019, with some outliers like France, Brazil, and Italy.
- Japan: 2.4%
- India: 3.5%
- Germany: 3.6%
- United Kingdom: 3.9%
- United States: 4.1%
- China: 4.8%
- Canada: 5.9%
- France: 8.6%
- Italy: 10.4%
- Brazil: 11.6%
The figures above will look considerably different in the coming months, as countries take measures to limit the mobility of their citizens to stem the spread of COVID-19. The impact on unemployment rates will vary based on how many people are ultimately affected, how severely it hits, and which societal interventions are necessary to contain its spread.
As mentioned earlier, the U.S. is expected to hit a 10% unemployment rate by the end of the second quarter in 2020. The Congressional Budget Office predicts it will remain at 9% at the end of 2021.
The number of people in the U.S. who lost their jobs within a two-week period at the end of March in 2020, according to the Department of Labor.
Unemployment Rates and Economic Strength
Having a low unemployment rate does not mean a country's economy is particularly strong. For instance, Myanmar had only 0.8% unemployment in 2019, but its GDP per capita was $1,326, according to the World Bank.
Niger had 0.4% unemployment in 2019, but GDP per capita of $414, making it the poorest country on the list. Cambodia employed 99.7% of its workforce in 2019. Its GDP per capita was $1,510 in 2018, about $4 a day.
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 $7,274 employs over 30% of its workforce in agriculture.
Unemployment Parallel With a Rich Economy
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 $68,794 in 2018. 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.
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.