LONDON - Unemployment across the 17 countries that use the euro ended 2011 at a record high, official figures showed Tuesday, a day after EU leaders acknowledged they would have to boost economic growth with the same urgency that they had shown in combating their nations' debts.
Eurostat, the EU's statistics office, said the 10.4 per cent unemployment rate in December was unchanged at its highest level since the euro was launched in 1999, as November's was revised upward from a previous estimate of 10.3 per cent.
Unemployment has been steadily rising over the past year — in December 2010, it stood at 10 per cent — largely because of Europe's debt crisis, and compares badly with the U.S., where unemployment stands at 8.5 per cent.
There are huge disparities across the eurozone, however, with those countries at the front line of Europe's current financial turmoil, such as Greece and Spain, suffering record rates of unemployment that are stoking concerns about the social fabric of their societies — Spain's unemployment stands at a staggering 22.9 per cent and Greece's is not far behind at 19.2 per cent.
What even those figures mask is that unemployment among the young is much, much higher. Latest figures from Spain show unemployment among people aged under 25 was 48.7 per cent, prompting concerns that an entire generation of people could fail to accumulate the necessary skills and experience for a prosperous life.
At the other end of the scale, some countries like Austria are operating not far off what is considered to be the natural rate of unemployment in an economy of 4.1 per cent, while Germany's rate at a post-unification low of 5.5 per cent.
Since Europe's debt crisis exploded around two years ago, the focus has been on austerity, with governments getting their houses in order with big, often-savage spending cuts, and tax increases.
However, there are growing signs that Europe is changing tack, and that measures to boost growth and jobs are now central to the crisis resolution effort.
On Monday, at a summit in Brussels designed to shore up the euro's budgetary defences against debt, EU leaders promised to stimulate growth and create jobs across the region.
"Yes we need discipline, but we also need growth," said Jose Manuel Barroso, the president of the European Commission, the EU's executive arm.
The leaders pledged to offer more training for young people to ease their transition into the work force, to deploy unused development funds to create jobs, to reduce barriers to doing business across the EU's 27 countries and ensure that small businesses have access to credit.
The task is hand is massive, with just under 16.5 million people unemployed in the eurozone, up 751,000 on the year before. Across the EU, which includes non-euro countries such as Britain and Poland, the number of unemployed stands at 23.8 million, or 9.9 per cent of the potential work force.
Even if reforms to economies across Europe help boost growth and potential employment opportunities, there are many headwinds that will be difficult to overcome, not least the fear that many economies will slip back into recession in the wake of ongoing austerity measures and subdued global demand.
"Governments in these countries urgently need to deliver labour market reforms that make it more attractive to hire workers and ensure that young people in particular are not put at risk of permanent exclusion from the work force," said Tom Rogers, a senior economic adviser at consultants Ernst & Young .
"Such reforms, if swiftly implemented, could have a powerful impact on confidence in the near term, and help ease the burden of the current crisis," Rogers added.