Causes of Unemployment around the World

Undeveloped Labor Markets

Low-income and middle-income countries face employment issues that go beyond unemployment as it is understood in the high-income economies. A substantial number of workers in these economies provide many of their own needs by farming, fishing, or hunting. They barter and trade with others and may take a succession of short-term or one-day jobs, sometimes receiving pay with food or shelter, sometimes with money. They are not “unemployed” in the sense that we use the term in the United States and Europe, but neither are they employed in a regular wage-paying job.

The starting point of economic activity, as we discussed in Welcome to Economics!, is the division of labor, in which workers specialize in certain tasks and trade the fruits of their labor with others. Workers who are not connected to a labor market are often unable to specialize very much. Because these workers are not “officially” employed, they are often not eligible for social benefits like unemployment insurance or old-age payments—if such payments are even available in their country. Helping these workers to become more connected to the labor market and the economy is an important policy goal. Recent research by development economists suggests that one of the key factors in raising people in low-income countries out of the worst kind of poverty is whether they can make a connection to a somewhat regular wage-paying job.