Youth Unemployment: A Global Concern

The global economic crisis may be leading to a deep sense of despair among the world’s youth, warns the International Labor Organization (ILO) in a just- released report (see here and here) – with potentially damaging social and economic consequences for us all.

Youth unemployment is at its highest level since the agency began tracking it in 1991, the ILO reported, noting that among other impacts “…[i]n many countries with stagnant economies and poor prospects for productive employment, [young people are drawn to] religious sects, secular ideologies and revolutionary movements."

Although the report cites disaffected Nepalese youth and their growing attraction to Maoism, most Americans will probably be more interested in how this issue plays out in the Middle East and North Africa. That region is currently experiencing an unprecedented "youth bulge," with young people between the ages of 15 and 29 accounting for over 30 percent of the overall population, some 20 percent or more (for some countries, the estimates are over 45 percent) of whom are unemployed. Under the circumstances, the danger of a rise in radical Islamist extremism can’t be overstated – especially since, as the ILO notes, the figures for sub-Saharan Africa don’t adequately reflect the extent and extremity of the region’s poverty and lack of government services.

The problem is “staggering," according to some observers. A relatively positive CNN piece in May quotes Queen Rania of Jordan, calling youth employment in the region a "ticking time bomb."

As the ILO report notes: “A lack of decent work, if experienced at an early age, threatens to compromise a person’s future employment prospects and frequently leads to unsuitable labour behavior patterns that last a lifetime. There is a demonstrated link between youth unemployment and social exclusion. An inability to find employment creates a sense of uselessness and idleness among young people that can lead to increased crime, mental health problems, violence, conflicts and drug taking."

In other words, a youth spent on the streets, and not in the shop or in school, exacts continuing, severe social costs – even for those who are not directly affected:

The loss of income among the younger generation translates into a lack of savings as well as a loss of aggregate demand. Some youth...have to be financially supported by the family, leaving less for spending and investments at the household level. Societies lose their investment in education. Governments fail to receive contributions to social security systems and are forced to increase spending on remedial services, including on crime or drug use prevention efforts. …Focusing on youth, therefore, makes sense to a country from a cost-benefit point of view. Young people...are the drivers of economic development in a country.
There are many interesting bits of information in the report, including the finding that, in developing countries, the economic crisis hit young women harder than young men, just the opposite from what occurred in the European Union and other developed economies. Young women in the Middle East and South Africa were especially hard hit.

Although the report is gloomy overall, it does forecast that youth unemployment rates should improve in 2011, albeit slightly – but not in the Middle East and North Africa, where rates are projected to continue rising. It is an ill-omen in a part of the world that two United Nations Development Program (UNDP) reports have already singled out for low literacy rates, high adult and youth unemployment, economic underdevelopment and conflict. (See here and here). Another UNDP report, part of a program designed to address these issues, noted continuing challenges in the “knowledge” or education area, at a time when sweeping changes in technology are demanding more knowledge from everyone. (See here).

For Americans whose interest remains tethered close to home, the AFL-CIO recently examined these issues in a U.S. context, through a 2009 report, Young Workers: A Lost Decade. For example, that survey found that one-third of young workers in the U.S. can’t afford to pay their bills.

What to do? The ILO notes that, on the one hand, there are a host of interventions – such as skills training, which combines remediation programs in literacy and numeracy with job-matching vocational/technical skills programs – which have some promise. (There have to be jobs to match people to, of course). Unfortunately, there is a lack of data on barriers to labor market entry, and on which programs work for whom in which circumstances. The message, however, is clear: We must invest in young people, early and consistently - in their education, in their training, and in the “soft” life skills (the habits of punctuality and personal deportment) that are among the constraints to labor market success. On the list of urgent issues that seems to grow ever longer, it belongs near the top.

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