Animated history

A GIF of world unemployment since 1991

January 28, 2014
January 28, 2014
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Labor markets around the world are deeply in the red.

Global unemployment hovered at 6% in 2013, with 202 million jobless—a 5 million increase from the year before. That’s according to a report last week from the International Labour Organization, a UN body tasked with monitoring and promoting workers’ rights and well-being.

Of course, those broad averages mask sharp variations between countries. In South Africa, Greece, Mauritania and Spain, unemployment tops 25%. In Russia, Germany, Mexico and Australia, it is in the much more tolerable zone between 5% and 6%.

So we took the ILO’s historical data on international jobless rates from 1991 on, and slapped the numbers into a GIF. The result is this loop of recent economic history, backed by more than two decades of data. (As well as ILO estimates for the next few years.) The animation underscores just how far some economies have come and which ones seem have simply ricocheted between boom and bust cycles.

The best way to look at this map is to focus on individual countries for a cycle or two. For instance, look at Ireland. When the curtain comes up in 1991, the tiny economy at the edge of Europe is grappling with nearly 16% unemployment. But the deep pink fades fast as Ireland’s “Celtic tiger” economy gathers steam through the late 1990s and a home-building mania takes hold after the turn of the century. We all know what happened next: The housing boom busted, the banks that financed it failed, the government tried to back the banks and was pulled into insolvency itself. With a jobless rate of about 14%, Ireland is once again a painful beacon in the Atlantic.

On the other side of the Eurasian landmass, Russia was in dire straits in 1991. Unemployment topped 12% as the Soviet Union fell apart. Things muddled along for a few years. Then after the default in 1998, unemployment peaked at 13.3%. But thanks to a more recent commodities boom and a period of political stability under the iron rule of president Vladimir Putin, unemployment fell to 5.8% in 2013, near historic lows.

Likewise, after Argentina defaulted in 2001, unemployment briefly shot to 18%. (In light of the recent sharp devaluation of the currency, Argentinians have a right to worry about a replay.) Spain and Greece, with more than 25% unemployment, now find themselves in something of a similar situation, as pressure from the bond markets forced both into bailout agreements (which Spain has just exited) and cost-cutting regimes.

Iraq and Egypt, with estimated unemployment rates of 16.1% and 12.7% respectively, are both suffering from political instability, among other ills. In South Africa, inequality, poor education, surging youth unemployment, and rigid labor markets have kept the jobless rate above 20% for more than a decade. Algeria, on the North African coast, is emblazoned in searing pink in the 1990s. (Unemployment peaked at nearly 30% in 2000.)  More recently it has mellowed to pastel as unemployment has fallen a bit.

And then there’s Australia. Its commodities-and-consumption-driven economy hasn’t suffered a serious setback in more than two decades, though there’s some indication that growth could be running on fumes. As a result, unemployment has been on a relentless decline from nearly 10.9% in 1993 to roughly 5.6% in 2013, according to the ILO.

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