Unemployment is a global problem

By Michael Elliott, contributor


FORTUNE -- In South Africa this summer for the Global Forum hosted by Fortune, Time, and CNN in Cape Town, I was in a car driving northwest from Johannesburg in the pale winter sun, marveling at an endless landscape, when we suddenly came across what can only be described as a rural slum. It was the sort of place into which African workers had been cruelly decanted under the apartheid regime: row upon row of tin shacks, a few miserable roadside markets, kids trying to flag us down to sell soccer scarves and oranges. We didn't stop.

It was a reminder that amid all the optimism about South Africa's prospects -- and the justified plaudits for its hosting of soccer's World Cup -- the nation has deep structural problems. The official unemployment rate is 25%; in North West province, where we were driving, only 35% of the working-age population has a job. Even allowing for a significant informal economy, those are staggering numbers. Little wonder that South African officials say weak "labor absorption" (a fancy way of saying growth is not generating enough jobs) is their key economic challenge.

Unemployment was the specter at the Global Forum's feast. For all the excitement over the developing world, there was a constant recognition that the Great Recession had played havoc with labor markets. On July 2 the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics released deeply disappointing figures for June, with the seasonally adjusted unemployment rate remaining stubbornly high at 9.5%, the same as a year ago. There's probably worse to come. In Cape Town financial analyst Meredith Whitney, who warned of the parlous state of the banking sector in 2007, drew attention to the silent fiscal crisis in the U.S., the one hammering state and local governments. As they try to get their budgets in order -- 49 states must run balanced budgets -- those governments, which account for 15% of U.S. jobs, will cut programs and lay workers off. In a May report, Whitney's firm, the Meredith Whitney Advisory Group, estimated that 1 million to 2 million state and local government jobs could be cut in the next year.

There are stories like this around the world. Consider Spain, another place with a deep fiscal crisis, where the unemployment rate in May rose to 19.9% -- and that is before the effects of the fiscal retrenchment to which its government is committed have been felt. Jami Miscik, vice chairman of Kissinger Associates and a former senior official in the CIA, frets that turmoil in the labor markets of countries such as Spain and Greece may lead to a new round of worker activism and political instability.

The global picture is not entirely bleak. A series of strikes and labor protests is a sign of a tightening labor market in China. In the spring the minimum wage was raised in the coastal provinces; in Guangzhou city, for example, it went from $127 to $163 a month. That doesn't sound like much, but it means that the "China price" of manufactured goods is getting a bit more expensive. An optimist might even think this could help job creation (or at least job preservation) in high-wage economies like the U.S., though outsourcing consultants will tell you there are other low-cost manufacturing locations in the world, including booming cities in inland China and countries such as Vietnam and Bangladesh.

Back home, however, job creation seems stalled. There is neither the political will nor the public appetite for a new round of spending to create jobs. A recent Time magazine poll found that only 24% of Americans favored a fresh stimulus program, as against 67% who opposed it.

Republican critics of the Obama administration, when they have anything at all to say about unemployment, seem to imagine that tax cuts and deregulation will unleash animal spirits in the private sector, leading to a wave of investment and consequent job creation. The Whitney report points out, however, that small businesses continue to struggle for access to capital. Given that fact, corporate America would have to show the spirits of a South African elephant to really make a dent in the unemployment numbers.

My gloomy conclusion: We know that the Great Recession has been the most devastating event for employment since the Depression. We'd now better get used to the idea that historically high levels of unemployment are going to be with us much longer than all but the most downbeat pessimists thought.  To top of page