The link between joblessness and social unrest

On Friday, the Bureau of Labor Statistics released its monthly report with the most recent data on jobs and employment in the United States, a bleak reminder that things aren’t getting much better for the unemployed in this country. Sadly, as the International Labor Organization’s annual World of Work report reveals, the world economy is no better, and the risk of social unrest has increased dramatically in rich countries as a result (see figure below). The ILO’s calculations are based on “levels of discontent over the lack of jobs and anger over perceptions that the burden of the crisis is not being shared fairly.”

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Just in the past year, we’ve seen violent clashes erupt between protestors and police in London, New York, Rome, and Oakland as a direct result of citizens protesting budget austerity, joblessness and a sputtering economic recovery. And in encampments literally all over the world people are peacefully protesting income inequality and widespread joblessness as part of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Thanks to a 17 percent youth unemployment rate in the U.S., young people in New York, Tulsa, Sacramento, Philadelphia, Minneapolis and elsewhere have plenty of time on their hands to protest and make their voices heard. Even recent college graduates have an unemployment rate that’s almost double what it was before the recession.

But just because they’re peaceful does not mean the OWS protestors are not seething with anger about the way that high level executives in the financial services industry – who are some of the wealthiest people in the world (better known as “part of the 1 percent”), have escaped prosecution or serving any jail time after bringing our economy to the brink of collapse, while the industry as a whole somehow managed to escape serious reform by Congress.

One of the other principal gripes of the peaceful OWS protestors is that Congress has failed to do almost anything to invest in the economy or create jobs since the stimulus package was passed in 2009, despite persistent joblessness and underemployment. Foreign governments in other developed countries have failed at this as well – and the discontent is palpable. Just look at the scale of protests in Spain, spurred in part by the country’s eye-popping 46 percent youth unemployment rate.

From most reports, it appears that the OWS protestors are committed to remaining peaceful – for now. Let’s hope it stays that way, despite this new evidence that things may deteriorate if economic conditions fail to improve.

My colleagues at EPI recently outlined how the grievances of the Occupy Wall Streeters are fact-based and supported by ample evidence. The ILO’s 2011 World of Work report offers a new estimate that should motivate 99 percent of the global population to join together into one massive movement that challenges the financial and political elite to enact policies that will put people back to work around the world. The table below is the ILO’s estimate that by 2013, there will be a global shortage of 40 million jobs – that’s a lot of desperate, hungry people with way too much time on their hands.


  • Jon Shefner

    I liked your comment.  But to add to the discussion, this is a relationship that has long been established.  There is a long literature on protest linked to austerity protests globally, and they have been documented to occur in over a hundred countries since 1976.  I will be happy to share more information on this if anyone is interested.  Just get in touch with Jon Shefner at the University of Tennessee.

  • K.V.R.

    Much of the inequity in access to jobs is caused by a disparity in high quality education. History teaches us that we must re-distribute wealth globally, or suffer the consequence of not only collapse of world economies but of states and republics. None of us should want this, because this kind of destabilization could put us on a trek backward in comparison to that caused by the khmer rouge. They still are unable to recover from that catastrophe.