I'm trying to describe unemployment in the first sentence of an economics essay about South Africa. The sentence I'm thinking of is, "Unemployment is a ... problem in South Africa,... "

I'm trying to think of a word to put in the first ellipsis, and it should have the connotation of the following words: widespread, malignant, intractable, pernicious, enduring, problematic, big, serious,... you get the idea. Can you think of the word I'm trying to find?

The sentence can be modified from the one I suggested; my aim is to have a powerful opening sentence.

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    It is possible that the word I'm looking for is "intractable" and that I'm just asking this question because I'm trying to brainstorm with others and make sure that's what I want. – ahorn May 11 '18 at 11:49
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    Some of your examples suggest a problem that's been around for a long time (enduring), and has proven difficult to rectify (intractable), or pervasive (widespread). Which aspect(s) are you trying to deal with? – mike65535 May 11 '18 at 11:51
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    I'm just looking for a powerful opening sentence. I like the sentence, "Unemployment is a significant and intractable problem in South Africa, which calls for attention on possible solutions." @mike65535 the essay looks at the effect of government grants on work-seeking behaviour. – ahorn May 11 '18 at 11:53
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    A snafu is one word that comes to mind. If you want a powerful opening sentence, you need to use an action verb and not "is". Unemployment plagues South Africa. Unemployment gnaws away at the South Africa. Just example. – Lambie May 11 '18 at 15:07
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    @ahorn I like your idea of "intractable" as I think really you are after the persistency and the lack of progress in elimination more than the impossibility or absolute size you are after (importance vs size). What I like about 'intractable' is that oddly enough, it suggests a tiny bit of optimism - if only a way of getting traction could be found - it calls for a hope for cause of action. However, if the paper has broader audiences, intractable is too elevated for plain english goals. "seemingly unconquerable" might be dramatic(adversary at war with)with edge of hope from seemingly – Tom22 May 11 '18 at 16:43

17 Answers 17


There's "pervasive"

(especially of an unwelcome influence or physical effect) spreading widely throughout an area or a group of people.

Synonyms: prevalent, pervading, permeating, extensive, ubiquitous, omnipresent, universal, rife, widespread, general

Or "perennial", to focus on the permanent nature.

You could go with some anthropomorphism, and say "Unemployment has been an implacable foe of South Africa".

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    Pervasive does not mean insurmountable, though the reason a problem is insurmountable might be due to it being pervasive. – MooseBoys May 12 '18 at 19:48

English is above all a verbalizing language (as opposed to, say, French, which is a nominalizing language). So, use an active verb aka action verb. In other words, we have strong verbs and they have strong nouns. This is a generalization that happens to be true. My opinion is: forget the verb to be and adjectives. Go for a good verb. These are some I thought of. I am sure others can come up with a plethora of other ones.

  • Unemployment gnaws away at South Africa.
  • Unemployment plagues South Africa.
  • Unemployment undermines South African society.
  • Unemployment burdens South Africa.
  • Unemployment throttles South Africa.

Here's a sample:

Read a good weather forecast and you’ll find the weather patterns described with such active verbs as “hammered,” “trounced,” “sliced,” and “eased.” Read a good sportscast and you’ll find gleeful discussions of how a losing team was “throttled,” “bashed,” “whipped,” or “humiliated.”

active verbs

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    "Unemployment throttles South Africa" is very powerful! – ahorn May 11 '18 at 15:15
  • is running rampant – Mazura May 11 '18 at 18:24
  • is running rampant is not a strong action verb. – Lambie May 11 '18 at 20:47

I think you may describe South Africa unemployment as a plague:

If you describe something as a plague, you mean that it causes a great deal of trouble or harm.

  • Inflation will remain a recurrent plague.
  • Tim seems to have escaped the cynicism which is the absolute plague of our generation.

(Collins Dictionary)

Usage example from the Journal of Business and Management 2003

The mostly affected by the plague of unemployment in Nigeria today are young school leavers, particularly graduates from tertiary institutions, and the bulk of people retrenched from work (Ofido, 1999:33). The unemployment situation, which ...

Other usage examples of “plague of unemployment” can be found here in Google Books


I suggest Monumental

Given the context, you want a word to describe a problem that is big, difficult to break down and dominates the problemscape.

In the context of your phrase, Monumental would be an entirely appropriate choice I think.

A variation on this might be Monolithic, Dominating/Dominant or perhaps Pervasive to emphasise that it's a widespread problem at many levels of society.


Unemployment is a crippling problem in South Africa…

Unemployment cripples all subsequent endeavors in South Africa…


Unemployment is the scourge of the South African economy...


A person or thing that causes great trouble or suffering.

‘the scourge of mass unemployment’

‘Unemployment, long the scourge of the Irish economy, remains very low, at around 4.5%, despite the recent slowdown in economic growth.’


Unemployment is an endemic problem in South Africa,...


1b : characteristic of or prevalent in a particular field, area, or environment ·problems endemic to translation ·the self-indulgence endemic in the film industry

I think this would be a good word choice as it evokes the idea of a more localized problem rather than the term epidemic which has connotations of a more widespread problem. You are focusing on South Africa in particular rather than on unemployment in general so use a word that focuses it.

Additionally, borrowing from it's more common use in reference to disease helps mark it as something that requires an active treatment and will not correct itself on its own.

You could also combine it with systemic for a more powerful sentence.

Endemic unemployement is a systemic problem in South Africa


systemic: of, relating to, or common to a system

  • Endemic does not at all have this meaning. Guinea worm is endemic to many areas but far from insurmountable; we've almost eradicated it through education and water filters (no medications!) – curiousdannii May 13 '18 at 5:18
  • @curiousdannii I feel like we are saying the same thing. You cite the Guinea worm as an example of an endemic problem. I agree that it is endemic rather than an epidemic. It has gotten to this point through action (as you accurately point out: education and water treatment) rather than being left untreated. Without these efforts, the Guinea worm would still be a much larger health problem. – PC_Goldman - SE is rotting May 14 '18 at 13:11
  • Endemic just means that it's "native" rather than introduced. It in no ways means an insurmountable problem. Guinea worm is endemic where it exists for as long as it exists. It's prevalence is tangential to its endemic nature. – curiousdannii May 14 '18 at 13:36
  • Are you referencing "insurmountable" because it's in the OP's title? The actual question and comments indicated to me that they weren't literally looking for a word that meant that. If they were, pretty much none of the answers, including the accepted one (pervasive), mean insurmountable. The closest is 'intractable' which was already mentioned by OP in the question comments. – PC_Goldman - SE is rotting May 14 '18 at 15:38
  • @PC Indeed, it's not a great question, but the title and body are compatible. Some of the other answers are bad too. – curiousdannii May 14 '18 at 20:24

I'd suggest chronic.

adjective [usually ADJECTIVE noun] A chronic situation or problem is very severe and unpleasant. One cause of the artist's suicide seems to have been chronic poverty. There is a chronic shortage of patrol cars in this police district.

source:Collins Dictionary,

  • I cannot fathom why Collins lists that as a definition, because that really isn't what chronic means. I guess it's a common misuse of the word and maybe they decided to capture that. Chronic refers to something occurring repeatedly or for a long time (hence "chron-" as in "chronological", having to do with time). Please don't use "chronic" to mean bad. – Dancrumb May 11 '18 at 18:14
  • @Dancrumb it's actually a proper definition, it's also listed by Cambridge Dictionary (very bad) and ODO (Of a very poor quality). Both list it as British English by the way. – JJJ May 11 '18 at 21:07
  • Both of those definitions are informal; certainly British slang and definitely not appropriate for an essay. – Dancrumb May 11 '18 at 21:25
  • As a slang term, chronic can also mean marijuana. – barbecue May 12 '18 at 0:50
  • @Dancrumb if it's slang it's also American. I've used chronic in exactly this way before and no one has ever blinked an eye – bendl May 12 '18 at 11:54

How about 'intractable' ? Unusual, dramatic, determinant. Meaning includes hard to control or deal with. "intractable economic problems" synonyms: unmanageable, uncontrollable, ungovernable, out of control, out of hand, impossible to cope with;

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    OP has suggested 'intractable'. – Edwin Ashworth May 11 '18 at 13:54

Unemployment is a (serious) malady in South Africa


2. countable noun
In written English, people sometimes use maladies to refer to serious problems in a society or situation.
When apartheid is over the maladies will linger on.

COBUILD Advanced English Dictionary. Copyright © HarperCollins Publishers

Examples on the web:

Google search for "unemployment is a malady"
Google search for "unemployment is a serious malady"


Unemployment strangles South Africa!

Strangle :(verb) (Cambridge Dictionary)

to stop something from developing.

There is a great deal of fear that the new restrictions might strangle the country's economy.

  • Isn't that a bit too personified? – ahorn May 12 '18 at 15:23
  • @ahorn, Yes, even so, it adds to the acceptance of the word. After all, unemployment strangles the country-men! – mahmud k pukayoor May 12 '18 at 15:53

Epidemic, according to Cambridge Dictionary:

a particular problem that seriously affects many people at the same time:

Example by Cambridge Dictionary:

a crime/unemployment epidemic

Attribution: "Epidemic Meaning in the Cambridge English Dictionary." Epidemic Definition in the Cambridge English Dictionary. Accessed May 11, 2018. https://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/epidemic.

Real-world examples

Financial Times column, titled: Causes of unemployment epidemic lie within borders

Huffignton Post blog, titled: Weekly Audit: The Unemployment Epidemic

Publication by Levy Economics Institute of Bard College, titled: Unemployment: The Silent Epidemic

Column by US senator Bernie Sanders at Mic.com, titled: Youth unemployment is epidemic in America. It’s time to give our young people a chance to succeed.


You could, very easily, use the word conundrum to fit your needs.

an intricate and difficult problem

He is faced with the conundrum of trying to find a job without having experience.

Usage in your sentence would be as follows:

Unemployment is a conundrum in South Africa,...

I might even re-write the sentence as such:

Unemployment in South Africa is quite the conundrum...

  • When I hear conundrum I think of a challenging question or decision, but not necessarily a widespread problem. – barbecue May 12 '18 at 0:54

Predicament. The fact that you cannot solve it on your own is what makes it a predicament, rather than just a problem.

However, if it's a problem that cannot be solved in the normal ways, and you are about to solve it via unconventional methods, then it's a Gordian knot.

  • In typical use today, "predicament" has a somewhat trivializing connotation. "We only have forks for our soup. Well isn't that a predicament!" I would strongly caution against using this word unless you intend to make light of the situation. – mattdm May 11 '18 at 17:23
  • @mattdm but what you are describing is actually sarcasm or irony. It could apply to any word, and you seem to be saying "predicament" is a word preferred in sarcastic use. Okay, but I would argue it's preferred because it's a great word. I'm not so sure that dilutes its value in straight use. – Harper - Reinstate Monica May 11 '18 at 17:59
  • No, I don't think so. I mean, there is some amount of that, but in the US at least it is rarely used in a very serious way. Look at what Merriam-Webster offers as synonyms: words like pickle, jam, sticky wicket, kettle of fish. – mattdm May 12 '18 at 0:05
  • I agree that predicament will be seen as understatement. – barbecue May 12 '18 at 0:55
  • Don't be mad - you literally told me to fact-check you! Three of your terms were cherry-picked from the tail of a much longer list of serious terms. Other synonym pages concur. I also googled "predicament" and random words: oil, climate, bee, harold, kumar, unserious... Outside of a few ringers like "cat", the usage is serious. I'll graciously assume you fell into the fallacy of considering only evidence you agree with. – Harper - Reinstate Monica May 12 '18 at 1:00

The simplest word possible would be the adjective huge as it's also used to convey the idea of being of great importance or seriousness:

Unemployment is a huge problem in South Africa...


As is:

Your example: Unemployment is a ... problem in South Africa.

Suggested: The big imbroglio in South Africa: unemployment!

imbroglio - TFD

A difficult or intricate situation; an entanglement. A confused or complicated disagreement. A confused or perplexing political or interpersonal situation. An unwanted, difficult, and confusing situation, full of trouble and problems

As in:

A society that keeps on barking at the industry and keeps reaping benefits out of a bad education system also finds it convenient to blame the Govt. for the imbroglio called unemployment. lindedin

“The Unemployment Imbroglio,” in “The Legislative Ledger,” LCS, 2/4/70. SF2,news cols. 15. AWB, WB, 2/70; WSLC, “Labor Looks at the 41st Session of the ... google books

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    My understanding of "imbroglio" is that it's situation of tension between people, not a problem involving impersonal forces. – Acccumulation May 11 '18 at 14:54
  • @Acccumulation see link: a confused or perplexing political or interpersonal situation – lbf May 11 '18 at 15:39
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    I really don't think imbroglio characterizes unemployment. The orange man is currently experiencing more than one imbroglio. – Lambie May 11 '18 at 15:53
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    Yes, that's what I said. An interpersonal situation. Unemployment is not an interpersonal situation, except at the most reductionist. – Acccumulation May 11 '18 at 16:19
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    Lambie's right, this connotes a complicated celebrity feud or political infighting, not a crushing social problem. – barbecue May 12 '18 at 0:58

Based on the short question which might bring people here or serve as a dupe target, I'd suggest wicked, even though other answers' options might be a better fit for the very specific problem noted in the question details.

Wicked problems are big and insurmountable, and so is even trying to specifically define the problem and its boundaries. Other specific characteristics of "wicked problems," for precise use of the term (better not to overuse it!), can be found in a famous paper:

Rittel, Horst W. J., and Melvin M. Webber. “Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning.” Policy Sciences 4 (1973): 155–69.

Today, climate change is often given as the canonical example of a wicked problem.

  • Do you think this sense of 'wicked' is one that is limited to academia? I have seen this sense of the word when studying public policy & administration. – ahorn May 13 '18 at 5:53
  • @ahorn I think it started with people studying public policy & administration, with this sense. Note the venue and title of the paper. – WBT May 13 '18 at 12:57

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