World Labor Force Growing at Divergent Rates

Elizabeth Leahy Madsen | Nov 12, 2009

The world’s potential labor force, measured as men and women from the ages of 15 to 64, stands at 4.46 billion people in 2009, up 18 percent over the last decade.1 The potential labor force has nearly tripled since 1950, when it was 1.5 billion, and people of working age now account for 65 percent of the world’s total population—the highest ratio since 1950.2 (See Figure 1.) Although the pace is slowing, this ongoing growth has both positive and negative implications: there are more potential workers to drive economic expansion, but the number of available jobs may not keep pace. Given the current recession, the International Labor Organization (ILO) projects the ranks of the unemployed in the world will grow to well over 200 million people in 2009, a global unemployment rate of roughly 7 percent.3

While the overall picture is one of slowing but steady growth in the potential labor force, and hence a growing need to maintain employment rates worldwide, trends are heading in quite disparate directions in different regions and countries. In developing countries, where women have an average of nearly three children each, the labor force has grown much more rapidly since 1950 (260 percent) than it has in industrial countries (where it grew nearly 60 percent), where fertility rates on average are already lower than the “replacement level” needed to sustain a population at a steady level.4 This is reflected in the disparities between the proportional size of regional labor forces and economies. (See Figure 2.)

Of course, everyone between the ages of 15 to 64 does not hold a job or produce income, for reasons such as schooling, child or elder care, unemployment, social custom, early retirement, and poor health or disability. The ILO calculates the difference between the size of the potential labor force and the economically active population.5 For the world as a whole, there were 3.1 billion economically active people aged 15 to 64 in 2009, or about 69 percent of the potential labor force.6 Fewer women than men are active in the labor force; this “gender gap” is largest in the Middle East and North Africa and smallest in East Asia and the Pacific.7 The proportion of the world’s working-age population that is economically active is remarkably consistent, having declined by just one percentage point over the past 30 years.8

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