The highest and lowest unemployment rates in the world vary dramatically, even among the Earth’s largest economies.
Unemployment in the United States, the largest economy in terms of gross domestic product (GDP), was at 3.5% by the end of February in 2020 — the lowest rate in half a century — but quickly rose to 14.8% by April in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic and its economic impact. By way of comparison, historical research shows that the average U.S. annual unemployment rate from 1949 through 2019 was 5.8%.
The Congressional Budget Office originally expected the unemployment rate to peak at 14% in the third quarter of 2020 and to quickly improve after that. Although it was right about the peak, the U.S. economy recovered much faster than predicted, with the unemployment rate having continued to decrease each month since the start of the pandemic — baring a 0.1% increase from March to April in 2021.
However, the economic recovery hasn’t been felt equally by all countries, with several nations having unemployment rates just as bad, if not worse, than they were before the pandemic began. Below are the countries with the highest and lowest unemployments rates, in addition to the unemployment rates of the world’s largest economies by GDP, according to the most recently available data from the United Nations.
The world’s top four highest unemployment rates at the end of 2020 were in Sub-Saharan Africa and occupied Palestine.
South Africa: 28.5%
Occupied Palestinian Territories: 26.1%
South Africa had one of the highest unemployment rates in the world in 2020. It’s also the richest countries in this grouping. The World Bank estimated its gross domestic product (GDP) per capita to be $6,001.4 in 2019.
The Palestinian territories are currently facing an unsustainable economic situation. 2020 was a particularly difficult year, as the the Palestinian economy has continued to feel the impact of both the economic fallout of the COVID-19 outbreak and a political standoff that made it difficult for the Palestinian Authority to collect tax revenue.
Surrounded by South Africa, 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 22%, along with extreme income inequality and poverty.
Eswatini suffers from extreme poverty and the world’s highest HIV/AIDS prevalence rate, according to the CIA. HIV/AIDS tends to cause a substantial decline in productivity as households lose manpower to the disease.
Part-time workers are counted as employed, and these figures don’t count people who give up looking for work for an extended period of time.
Below are the world’s 10 lowest unemployment rates at the end of 2020:
The above countries have stunning unemployment rates — from 0.1% to 1.4% — and all bested the U.S. by a considerable margin at the end of 2020.
The unemployment rates for the top 10 largest economies by GDP were predictably low at the end of 2020, with some outliers like France, Italy, and Brazil.
United States: 3.9%
United Kingdom: 4.1%
The figures above will likely look considerably different in the coming months, as countries reopen their economies and the number of daily COVID-19 cases continues to generally trend downward. The impact on unemployment rates will vary based on the accessibility of the vaccine, how quickly populations are able to achieve herd immunity, how soon businesses are able to resume operating at full capacity.
As mentioned earlier, the U.S. was originally expected to hit a 14% unemployment rate by the end of the second quarter in 2020. The Congressional Budget Office predicted it would decline to 7.6% by the end of 2021. It ended up beating that benchmark by 15 months after dropping from 7.8% to 6.9% between September and October of 2020.
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.
Having a low unemployment rate does not mean a country’s economy is particularly strong. For instance, Niger had only 0.5% unemployment in 2020, but its GDP per capita was $553.9 in 2019, according to the World Bank. Burundi had 0.5% unemployment in 2020 but a GDP per capita of $261.2 in 2019, making it the poorest country on the above list. Cambodia employed 82.4% of its workforce in 2020. Its GDP per capita was $1,643.1 in 2019, about $4.50 a day.
These countries have low unemployment figures in large part because their economies rely heavily on agriculture, which is labor-intensive but seasonal. Remember that the underemployed are still counted in employment figures. Even Laos, with a relatively healthy GDP per capita of $4,903.2 in 2019, still employed nearly 20% of its workforce in agriculture in 2017.
Of course, it’s possible to have both low unemployment and a rich economy. This combination is seen in Qatar. According to the World Bank, GDP per capita in Qatar was $62,088.1 in 2019. That wealth helps their standing in the above listing, as a country’s unemployment rate only factors in those actively looking for work. The working-age child of rich parents may feel less pressure to earn money and be more inclined to spend it.
Qatar’s economy is driven by oil and natural gas, hence its extreme wealth, though it’s been making a sustained push to diversify into financial services, construction, restaurants, and hotels.