WITH nearly one-third of the world's work force out of a job or working fewer hours than desired, unemployment both reflects and contributes to economic and social decay. From country to country, politicians are struggling for prescriptions. But given limited financial resources, entrenched systems, and the high political risk of making changes that may vote them out of office, they have made few bold moves.
Publicly, their problems have assumed a high profile. Nearly a year ago, at the Group of Seven (G-7) summit meeting in Tokyo, President Clinton called on leaders from the top industrialized nations - the United States, Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, and Japan - to make unemployment a priority on the international agenda.
Soon thereafter, commissioners from the 12-nation European Union (EU) fanned out among member states to sell a plan for job creation. An EU blueprint cited government as a problem - with excessive state ownership and costly welfare policies - but it balanced its call for privatization and deregulation with a proposal for big government spending on new projects.
Then the Geneva-based International Labor Organization (ILO) sounded alarms by reporting that more people are out of work worldwide than ever before - with a startling 30 percent underemployed or unemployed - and that, this year, joblessness among the world's richest nations is projected to reach the highest level since the Great Depression.
At a G-7 jobs conference that President Clinton hosted in Detroit this March, attendees swapped suggested remedies but found that much of their experience is not transferable.
And just last week, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) released data showing 35 million people unemployed in the industrialized world and another 15 million who have given up the job search or begrudgingly accepted part-time work.
OECD Secretary-General Jean-Claude Paye echoes an often-expressed view: ``Unemployment is probably the most widely feared phenomenon of our times.''
Even in the US, where a flexible, entrepreneurial economy has helped create the globe's biggest gains in employment over the past two decades - large layoffs continue and wide income disparities persist.
For many months, the Clinton administration benefited from an eased monetary policy, its single most important lever for job generation. Yet the Federal Reserve Board's recent raising of interest rates confounds the administration's plan for more, better-paying jobs.
Worried about political fallout from high unemployment rates, including a new push for protectionist measures, policymakers will voice their concerns at the next G-7 summit in Naples this July. By then, observers hope, analysts offering solutions and governments in need of new directions will be on the same course.