Youth unemployment rates: a challenge for the future of work in Latin America and the Caribbean

There are about 10 million young people who want to enter the labour market and do not gain employment. Those who find a job must face decent work deficits and informality. As part of activities to mark International Youth Day (12 August 2019), ILO News discussed this situation with Regional Youth Employment Specialist Guillermo Dema*.

News | 13 August 2019
Lima, Peru - The unemployment rate of young people in Latin America and the Caribbean is around 18 per cent, the highest level since the regional averages began to take place almost 30 years ago, and everything seems to indicate that it will not be reduced in the near future, of according to the latest estimates made by the ILO.

"We are talking about almost 10 million young people between 15- and 24- years-old who are looking to enter the labour markets but do not get an opportunity," said Guillermo Dema, Regional Youth Employment Specialist at the ILO Office for Latin America and Caribbean.

"The ILO considers that the employment of young people is a priority issue, and it is even more urgent when we are going through a moment of unprecedented youth unemployment," Dema added when asked about the labour landscape of this age group on International Youth Day, which was celebrated on 12 August 2019.

The data on youth employment presented in the “Social and employment prospects in the world - Trends 2019” report which was published earlier this year in Geneva indicate that the average youth unemployment rate in Latin America and the Caribbean was 17.9 per cent in 2018, and 18 per cent in 2017, the highest levels recorded since the Outlook was launched in 1991, when levels were at 11.1 per cent.

The ILO report contains a tool called “Data Finder” that allows you to observe the evolution of some labour indicators. According to the data, of an estimated total of 110 million young people between the ages of 15 and 24, 56.3 million are not part of the workforce, and are mostly students.

Of the 53.7 million that have already joined the workforce, at least 9.6 million do not get a job, equivalent to about 40 per cent of the total unemployed in the region. But Guillermo Dema warns that there are other circumstances to consider, such as the quality of employment that young people can access.

ILO News: Is it possible to reduce youth unemployment this year?

Dema: Economic growth is essential to recover employment in general. But the region currently faces weak growth. This year the prospects are not good. ECLAC lowered the estimated regional growth from 1.3 per cent to 0.5 per cent. Under these conditions youth unemployment will not improve this year and could even get worse.

ILO News: Do all countries in Latin America and the Caribbean face a similar youth unemployment situation?

Dema: Behind the regional averages there are various national situations, and the rates may be different depending on the country. But the upward trend has been a constant over the past few years. Some labour markets record youth unemployment rates above 20 per cent.

ILO News: Which country is better and which is worse?

Dema: The ILO does not rank countries. We use data that comes from official national sources to observe the regional landscape. But a relevant fact is that in almost all of the cases, whether at the regional, subregional or national level, the youth unemployment rate doubles the general rate and triples that of adults over 25 years.

ILO News: Is unemployment the biggest problem for young people in Latin America and the Caribbean?

Dema: It is the tip of iceberg, because it is the most visible. There is another relevant fact: according to estimates, six out of 10 young people only find employment in conditions of informality, which implies little stability, absence of a contractual framework, low salaries, as well as the absence of rights and social protection. In short, they are getting precarious jobs.

ILO News: Why should youth employment be a priority?

Dema: Effective transitioning to decent jobs contributes to harnessing the potential of the most educated generation the region has ever had. But it is also an important element to place people on decent work paths, something that is very difficult when they are besieged by unemployment or informality. In addition, lack of employment, or decent employment, can lead to situations of frustration or discouragement, which impacts on families, in communities, affects social stability, and can even have an impact on governance perspectives. The situation of young people who do not study or work is a concern.

ILO News: Are they called the “neither nor”

Dema: That is the term that is being used. We are talking about 20 per cent of young people, that is, about 20 million in Latin America and the Caribbean. The proportion is more or less similar in different countries or subregions. The unemployed who do not study are included. We estimate that half are young women with difficulties in accessing the labour market because for example, they have been mothers. And there is a significant number, about 5 million, that simply do not work or study.

ILO News: What can be done to improve youth employment?

Dema: We are facing a political challenge that demands determination to apply innovative and proven policies. Although the issue of youth employment is often included in political speeches, and is part of government agendas at different levels in almost every country in the region, it is still necessary to redouble efforts to address this problem.

It is also necessary to reflect on how educational systems, which in many cases are based on 20th-century models, can prepare young people for the new labour market realities without leaving anyone behind, as established in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. To achieve this, it is necessary to improve the quality of education and vocational training, and also address the gap between the skills and knowledge of young people and what the labour market requires and values.

ILO News: And if there is economic growth, will the situation improve?

Dema: Robust economic growth allows more work to be generated and this also impacts young people. But while growth is key, it is not enough. Specific policies must be put in place to generate jobs.

There is a range of options and good practices. These include: making youth employment a priority in social dialogue agenda among the key actors in the economy; supporting the entrepreneurial spirit of young people; offering employment services that are more efficient and that provide more coverage; improving the access and quality of both education and vocational training; stimulating innovation; facilitating the certification of competences; increasing internship and learning systems to consolidate training; making it easier for young women to stay in the labour market, through daycare centres for their children and all-day shifts in schools…among others.

ILO News: What has the ILO done to advance youth employment?

Dema: The issue of youth employment is fundamental and a priority for the ILO. The recent ILO Centenary Declaration adopted in June in Geneva specifies the need to advance decent work goals for all “emphasizing the effective integration of young people into the world of work”.

The ILO has developed a series of initiatives to address this challenge, in collaboration with the social partners and with young people themselves, who are best placed to identify viable national policy options that can increase youth employment numbers.

Although there is no single recipe or single solution, the region has accumulated experience in a very broad base of good practices which has been supported through the technical assistance of the ILO. These efforts include creating programs to influence better education and improve employability, providing advice for active policies of the labour market for a good initial labour integration, supporting strategies that promote entrepreneurship, and creating dual education programs that combine training and employment.

There are also concerted actions in which the ILO actively participates. For example, the ILO joined several United Nations agencies and other partners such as the private sector to mark this year’s International Youth Day theme “Transforming education” as part of the Global Initiative on Decent Work for Youth.

ILO News: What is your vision for the future of youth employment?

Dema: For young people it is clear what the future of work will look like. They are and will be people in society that face this crossroads of past problems such as informality or inequality, along with those of the future, where new technologies, climate change, population aging, or the forces of globalization And we must certainly support young people to face these realities.

The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development recognizes the importance of the full incorporation of youth in the labour market in several of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in order to achieve equality. It is necessary to invest in youth employment now to overcome challenges that the future labour market will generate and to ensure that young people are able to sustain our economies and our future societies.

* Guillermo Dema has worked as a regional specialist in youth employment issues for more than a decade, and also works in migration issues at the ILO Regional Office for Latin America and the Caribbean.