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Labor markets in the global economy: How to prevent rising wage gaps and unemployment

Erich Gundlach () and Peter Nunnenkamp

No 305, Kiel Discussion Papers from Kiel Institute for the World Economy (IfW)

Abstract: The strikingly different labor market performance of major industrial countries suggests that neither globalization nor skill-biased technological change necessarily result in rising unemployment or declining wages of low-skilled workers. Rather, globalization and technological change cause labor market problems in those economies that fail to adjust sectoral production structures in accordance with their comparative advantages. Labor market outcomes in Germany - especially when compared with the United States - suggest that high unemployment is the price for insufficient wage flexibility. However, the experience of Japan and the United Kingdom points to missing links in the debate on labor market effects of globalization and skill-biased technological change. In Japan, both unemployment and wage disparities remained low. The contrasting experience is provided by the United Kingdom, where the rising wage gap did not prevent high unemployment of low-skilled workers. All major industrial countries have been confronted with fiercer import competition and outsourcing in low-skill labor-intensive industries. But the response to this common challenge has different remarkably. Japan has outperformed its major competitors in restructuring manufacturing employment towards more sophisticated lines of production, and in achieving an appropriate pattern of trade specialization. Hence, structural change is the key to avoid labor market problems in the era of globalization. Different labor market outcomes are closely related to differences in the rate of factor accumulation, which comprises physical, human and technological capital. Especially industrial countries currently plagued with high unemployment have little choice but to forego consumption today in order to improve future real incomes and employment opportunities of lowskilled workers. Thus, successful structural change does not come for free.

Date: 1997
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