27 May 2008

Jobless growth, a new impediment to development

by Codrina Rada
Following the lost decades of the 1970s and 1980s, during which many developing economies recorded extended periods of output decline, the economic profession has seen a renewed interest in the debate about what drives economic growth. Much of the mainstream academic work on the issue has been focused on those classic factors that foster capital accumulation and productivity growth -- savings, human capital or technological change. Nothing surprising here since the theoretical basis had already been well-established by the Solow model of growth, versatile enough to accommodate the sustainable take off of yet a few more academic careers. Unfortunately, there wasn’t much sustainability for development and therefore for many in poverty in the policy prescriptions derived from such models. 

Empirical evidence shows that strong labor productivity growth is not anymore sufficient to solve problems of acute poverty or underdevelopment. For the last decade or so many developing economies have claimed good economic performance but oddly enough growth has not led to a substantial decline in the underutilized labor force. In fact the informal sector in most of the developing countries has been on the rise. Global Employment Trends, a 2004/5 report from the International Labor Organization and Key Indicators from the Asian Development Bank’s 2005 report on Asian economies show that “out of a total labor force of 1.7 billion in the DMCs[1], around 500 million are underutilized in terms of being either unemployed or underemployed…” (ADB 2005)[2]; “during the 1990s, own-account and family workers[3] represented nearly two-thirds of the total non-agricultural labor force in Africa, half in South Asia, a third in Middle East…”; “In Latin America the urban informal economy was the primary job generator during the 1990s....urban informal employment in Africa was estimated to absorb about 60 per cent of the urban labour force and generate more than 93 per cent of all new jobs in the region in the 1990s” (ILO 2005).

 The problem with the jobless growth phenomenon in the developing countries is two-fold. First, efforts to fight wide-spread poverty levels are destined to fail unless jobs are created for the many unemployed and poor. As Fields (2004) points out “poor are poor because they earn little from the work they do”[4]. And if growth does not produce high-productivity, high-pay jobs, its purpose to foster development and alleviate poverty, will eventually be defeated. Secondly, economic history suggests that sustainable growth is associated with structural changes towards secondary and tertiary sectors, shifts in sectoral employment from low to high-productivity sectors and changing patterns of specialization towards higher value-added products (UN 2006). For economists and policy makers alike these recent trends pose a significant challenge: strong productivity growth generates unwanted social and economic outcomes i.e. under and unemployment.

This is not to say that productivity growth is unwelcome. On the contrary, it remains the essential ingredient for long-run growth. But it will fail to produce development unless outcomes, such as the jobless growth and lack of structural change, are addressed by policy. Generally speaking the solution to this dilemma is a matter of successful implementation of both pro-growth as well as socially relevant economic policies.

While there are many dimensions policies should address I want to refer here to few which I think are essential. Strategies can be thought of based on their target: vulnerable groups, distributive issues, inadequate demand and anemic structural changes. First of all, households in the informal sector are especially vulnerable because they lack a steady income flow and often fall outside the social safety net system. In the short-run an economic shock or natural disaster reinforces development and poverty traps as resources are usually insufficient to distribute to all those in need. In the long run consequences for development are substantial as these groups lack adequate access to education, health care and consequently economic opportunities. Finally, economic insecurity for extended periods of time is conducive to political instability which is likely to put a check on investment and therefore economic growth. Institutional changes and policies which target the most vulnerable groups in a society become essential (see 2008 World Economic and Social Survey, UN, DESA).

 Second, there is the issue of how to distribute the gains from economic expansion. This is a delicate matter from both a socio-political and an economic perspective. On the social and political side, redistributive measures are often resisted by those in the formal sector who are asked to give up part of their income. In fact a large informal sector may make it impossible for the government to implement any redistributive measures without strangling expansion in the formal sector or facing serious political opposition from the affluent part of the society. From an economic point of view, redistribution has to take into account how different economic classes behave in terms of their consumption and investment patterns, otherwise growth may be adversely affected. Overall, redistribution is effective in the long-run only if it encourages the creation new productive activities.

 Third, strong productivity growth generates job loss when aggregate demand is insufficient. The 2006 World Economic and Social Survey suggests that the structural transformation from primary to secondary and finally tertiary sectors in the rapidly growing East Asian economies throughout the last few decades was supported a great deal by fixed investment. The core strategy is a classic example of Keynesianism and it calls for either an increase in domestic expenditures, investment or government expenditures, or for measures that would stimulate external demand, such as a competitive exchange rate policy. Either one should ultimately target the absorption of underutilized labor force.

 Finally, when structural change is anemic or in other words economic growth does not lead to changes in the basic configuration of the economy, policy should look to establish forward and backward linkages between different sectors of the economy, including the informal sector.

 Source: United Nations, World Economic and Social Survey 2006, UN, New York. Asian Development Bank, Key Indicators 2005: Labor Markets in Asia: Promoting Full, Productive, and Decent Employment International Labour Organization (2004), Employment Trends, ILO Geneva. [1] Developing Member Countries (DMC) of the Asian Development Bank [2] Where Asia’s labor force of 1.7 billion accounts for about 57.3% of the world’s total labor force (ADB 2005) [3] The two categories account for a broad definition of underemployment. ILO 2005 [4] The quotation by Fields (2004) is from the ADB (2005) report. Codrina Rada is Assistant Professor at the Department of Economics, University of Utah. Education: 2007, Ph.D. in Economics, New School for Social Research; 2005, M.Phil in Economics, New School University; 2000 MA in Sociology, University of Massachusetts, Boston, BA in Economics. Current research interests: ‘Jobless growth: A New Tale for the Global World’, ‘The Macroeconomics of Pensions’ and ‘Developing and Transition Economies in the Late 20th Century: Diverging Growth Rates, Economic Structures, and Sources of Demand’


  1. Interesting! But please use paragraphs to aid the reader...

  2. Thanks, Yeti. Paragraphs in place now.