ECONOMIC RECOVERY, for North Americans, is going to mean lower unemployment. For Europeans, recovery will mean only that unemployment rises less rapidly. In this country the unemployment rate, declining slowly since the turn of the year, is now 10 percent. In Europe it is 11 percent and, by this time next year, it is likely to be somewhere around 12 percent.
Among young people, unemployment is high on both sides of the Atlantic. But there's a difference. For Americans under the age of 24, the rate this year will be about 18 percent. In France and Britain it will be around 24 percent. In Italy it will be over 30 percent.
Those somber figures come from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the statistician and economic analyst for the world's two dozen rich industrial countries. In the United States, the number of jobs is now back where it was at the beginning of the recession two years ago; the unemployment rate is higher because the population has grown. But in West Germany and France, the number of jobs has fallen steadily since 1980 and, the OECD warns, will continue to fall through 1984. The shrinking of the industrial economy has been even more drastic in Britain, where jobs in manufacturing have dropped by 30 percent over the past decade.
Western Europe has constructed an economy since World War II that is highly productive but also highly rigid. It does not adjust well to the unexpected. Its troubles started, not with the current recession, but with the oil crisis of 1973.
Through the 1950s and 1960s, driven by memories of dire hardship, the Europeans built layer after layer of social protection into their economic structure far beyond anything that exists in North American legislation. Here and in Canada, when unemployment rises, wages slow down. But in most of Europe wages are insulated from that kind of pressure. As labor has become overpriced, European companies have pressed relentlessly for higher productivity in order to maintain their output with fewer and fewer people. That's the main reason for the high unemployment among the inexperienced young.
In a stagnant economy, productivity gains are not an unmixed blessing. In growth of productivity over the past decade, Belgium ranks right behind Japan among the industrial countries--but Belgium's unemployment rate is 13.4 percent. The Netherlands is close behind Belgium in productivity gains, and its unemployment rate is now over 16 percent. Governments of neither the right nor the left have been able to do much about the tradition of wage rigidity. The insistence on personal security is too strong among European voters. The result is the high and rising unemployment that has now become the central fact of Western European politics.