Causes of Unemployment around the World

The Natural Rate of Unemployment

Unemployment rates in European nations have typically been higher than in the United States. In 2006, before the start of the Great Recession, the U.S. unemployment rate was 4.6%, compared with 9% in France, 10.4% in Germany, and 7.1% in Sweden. We can attribute the pattern of generally higher unemployment rates in Europe, which dates back to the 1970s, to the fact that European economies have a higher natural rate of unemployment because they have a greater number of rules and restrictions that discourage firms from hiring and unemployed workers from taking jobs.

Addressing the natural rate of unemployment is straightforward in theory but difficult in practice. Government can play a useful role in providing unemployment and welfare payments, for example, by passing rules about where and when businesses can operate, and assuring that the workplace is safe. However, these well-intentioned laws can, in some cases, become so intrusive that businesses decide to place limits on their hiring.

For example, a law that imposes large costs on a business that tries to fire or lay off workers will mean that businesses try to avoid hiring in the first place, as is the case in France. According to Business Week, “France has 2.4 times as many companies with 49 employees as with 50 ... according to the French labor code, once a company has at least 50 employees inside France, management must create three worker councils, introduce profit sharing, and submit restructuring plans to the councils if the company decides to fire workers for economic reasons.” This labor law essentially limits employment (or raises the natural rate of unemployment).