The global youth unemployment crisis: the great challenge of our time (along with climate change)

Up to 90 per cent. This is how decisive a factor young people from around world – interviewed by the Millennial Dialogue foundation – consider the economy to be with regard to their “future quality of life”.

As the debate broadens about the future of work in the context of the current industrial revolution, what seems clear is that the chronic unemployment and job instability affecting young people, in addition to their distrust of politics, hold devastating consequences for society as a whole.

“The youth unemployment crisis, specifically – in the context of the global employment situation – is, along with climate change, the great challenge of our time,” the head of the ILO Office in Spain, Joaquín Nieto, tells Equal Times.

“Every year around the world, 40 million young people – 400 million in a decade – join a labour market that is not growing enough.” Around 70 million out of the 200 million people out of work are young, and as Nieto warns, “if the economy does not prove capable of finding a solution, we are going to find ourselves with a lost generation” bringing with it a “ loss of human capital, social exclusion and dislocation”.

“The other challenge is the quality of the jobs available, as, unlike in previous generations, which made substantial gains in terms of workers’ rights and conditions, the crisis has accelerated the replacement of quality jobs with those that are not,” he continues. At the same time, “social protection policies have been weakened and there has been a fracturing of the social contract”.

“If nothing is done to tackle global youth unemployment, the consequences will be significant; all that remains to be seen is in what sense,” argues Nieto. “Economic, social and employment policies need to be geared towards resolving this problem, given that the youth employment crisis is behind all kinds of phenomena, as seen with the Arab Spring in 2011,” he adds.

“Youth bulges”, unemployment and instability

A report by the Norwegian Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO) on the Arab Spring and the role of young people concluded that countries with “youth bulges” are at greater “risk of collapsing”. The research points out that although “the Middle East and North Africa are rapidly maturing demographically, low economic and political opportunities for the youth in the region remain a major concern”.

“A large pool of frustrated, unemployed young people,” underlines the report, provides “rebel organisations” with a “steady supply of potential recruits”.

Around 40 per cent of the demonstrators taking part in the protest that year (2011) in Egypt, Yemen, Libya and Tunisia were aged between 18 and 20, almost half were students and 75 per cent were unemployed or working part-time.

In Central America, the population pyramids also reflect rapid growth, mainly in the 15 to 24 age group, which is set to continue for the next three decades.

The homicide rate among males in that age bracket, largely fed by gang violence, is four times higher than the international average, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.

Ana Glenda Táger, Latin America regional director of Interpeace, is very familiar with the phenomenon of groups of young people in the area (gangs, crime rings, sports team supporters and school bands) going from being “mechanisms of cohesion, identity and solidarity” to being vehicles of “radicalisation”, due to the excessive violence within schools and families, and the repressive measures used by the police”.

“Youngsters from what is known as the Northern Triangle – Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras – as well as constituting the majority of the population, are only left with three life choices: migrating to the United States [in perilous conditions and running all manner of risks], working in the informal economy, or swelling the ranks of the gangs or organised crime networks,” she tells Equal Times.

These three countries have the region’s highest proportion of young people neither in employment, education nor training (NEETs), with percentages close to 30 per cent according to an ILO report on youth and decent work.

The overall number of young people neither studying nor working in Latin America is over 20 million, according to the World Bank.

“They know they won’t have a better life than their parents”

In the case of young people in developed countries, in Nieto’s view, the impact of their “questioning of the establishment and how the system works” does not necessarily have to be negative.

“It is a young population that is quite well-informed and participatory, which is why phenomena can emerge such as the 15M movement in Spain, which have shaken up some of the archaic facets of our current democracies; but it could also lead masses of young people to join organisations offering responses based on xenophobia, racism and exclusionary nationalism.

The social reaction and economic policies focussed on employment that generate sufficient confidence will be fundamental to making this questioning constructive.” But, he adds:

“What underlies the frustration felt by young people is the knowledge that they won’t have a better life than their parents.”

In Spain, since the onset of the crisis, the risk of poverty among 16 to 29-year-olds has risen by 11 percentage points (from 18.1 to 29.2 per cent), whilst it has fallen by 13 points (from 25.5 to 12.3 per cent) among the over 65s, according to the INS, national statistics institute.

The world’s largest ever survey of millennials (born during the last couple of decades of the 20th century) reveals that this generation, comprised of 18 to 35-year-olds, is not interested in politics. Their main reasoning: politicians are not interested in young people and their problems.

“In Germany, they are on the political agenda. But they feel cheated when, following the elections, politicians don’t deliver on their promises,” says Fabian Wichman, head of campaigns for Exit Deutschland. This deradicalisation project, the only one of its kind in the country, has “rescued” over 600 people from Nazi organisations over the last 14 years. The German Interior Ministry, however, estimates that there are still 25,000, 40 per cent of whom still wish “to use violence to promote their ideology”.

“Data protection excludes the under 16s from that figure,” explains Wichman, “But if you look at the crime figures in general, the most violent age in groups linked to various ideologies is between 18 and 31.” As regards the triggers for their radicalisation, Wichman believes “it has a lot to do with becoming an adult and problems within the family or at school...but there are also economic reasons: the fear of not finding work or a fear of foreigners.”

“Some do have work and are not disconnected from society, but the fear of losing it can trigger violent behaviour. There are also global situations, such as the refugee crisis. They fear they are going to have less or that other groups might have less. There is the fear of not being able to get what one wants, such as housing, for example[...]. It is a combination of factors – family, violent environment – and the promise such groups offer: ‘we have the solution to your problems’,” he concludes.

“In the Future of Work debate, the ILO, governments, trade unions and employers are analysing whether there will be [decent] work for all and what form it will take. Automation within the context of the current Industrial Revolution is set to give rise to huge increases in productivity; the key is whether everyone, and the new generations in particular, will share in the benefits,” says Nieto.

“If they are shared out, the outcome could be inclusive. But the opposite could also happen, as employment trends, linked to the measures taken during the crisis, are not pointing in the right direction. And if the approach taken in recent times is maintained, we could be heading for a technological revolution without social inclusion, in which peaceful coexistence will not be possible. That is the great risk,” he concludes.

This article has been translated from Spanish.