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Youth unemployment at all time high, new ILO report says half the world's jobless are under 24

Youth unemployment has skyrocketed worldwide over the past decade to some 88 million, according to a new study by the International Labour Office (ILO), reaching an all time high with young people aged 15 to 24 now representing nearly half the world's jobless.

Press release | 11 August 2004

GENEVA (ILO News) - Youth unemployment has skyrocketed worldwide over the past decade to some 88 million, according to a new study by the International Labour Office (ILO), reaching an all time high with young people aged 15 to 24 now representing nearly half the world's jobless.

"Global Employment Trends for Youth 2004" ( Note 1), a new analysis prepared by the ILO's Employment Strategy Department, found that while youth represent 25 per cent of the working age population between the ages of 15 and 64, they made up as much as 47 per cent of the total 186 million people out of work worldwide in 2003.

But the problem goes far beyond the large number of young unemployed people: the report says that young people represent some 130 million of the world's 550 million working poor who work but are unable to lift themselves and their families above the equivalent of US$ 1 per day poverty line. These young people struggle to survive, often performing work under unsatisfactory conditions in the informal economy.

Tackling youth unemployment and the consequent vulnerabilities and feelings of exclusion would be a significant contribution to the global economy. According to the report, halving the world youth unemployment rate would add at least US$ 2.2 trillion to global GDP, equal to around 4 per cent of the 2003 global GDP value. Furthermore, as the report points out, people who get a good start to working life are less likely to experience prolonged unemployment later.

"We are wasting an important part of the energy and talent of the most educated youth generation the world has ever had", says ILO Director-General Juan Somavia. "Enlarging the chances of young people to find and keep decent work is absolutely critical to achieving the UN Millennium Development Goals."

Global unemployment hits youth hard

"Global Employment Trends for Youth 2004" found that rising worldwide unemployment has hit young people hard, especially young women. Those who can find work often face long working hours, short-term or informal contracts, low pay and little or no social protection such as social security or other social benefits. Young people are thus increasingly dependent on their families and more susceptible to illegal activities, the report says.

The report puts the global youth unemployment rate at 14.4 per cent in 2003, a 26.8 per cent increase of the total number of young unemployed people over the past decade. Youth unemployment rates in 2003 were highest in the Middle East and North Africa (25.6 per cent), followed by sub-Saharan Africa (21 per cent), the Transition economies (18.6 per cent), Latin America and the Caribbean (16.6 per cent), South-East Asia (16.4 per cent), South Asia (13.9 per cent), the Industrialized economies (13.4 per cent), and East Asia (7 per cent). The industrialized economies region was the only region where youth unemployment saw a distinct decrease (from 15.4 per cent in 1993 to 13.4 per cent in 2003).

The report shows that the growth in the number of young people is rapidly outstripping the ability of economies to provide them with jobs. While the overall youth population grew by 10.5 per cent over the last 10 years to over 1.1 billion in 2003, youth employment grew by only 0.2 per cent to around 526 million employment opportunities. Only some of this gap can be explained by the fact that more young people are pursuing an education for longer periods.

Young people also have more difficulty finding work than their adult counterparts, the report says, with the global youth unemployment rate in 2003 at 3.5 times the global adult unemployment rate. While there is a correlation in most countries between trends in youth and adult unemployment rates, the report notes that during recessions, youth unemployment tends to rise more rapidly than adult joblessness.

The relative disadvantage of youth is more pronounced in developing countries, where they make up a strikingly higher proportion of the labour force than in industrialized economies, the report says. Eighty-five per cent of the world's youth live in developing countries where they are 3.8 times more likely to be unemployed than adults, as compared with 2.3 times in industrialized economies.

The report also says that labour force participation rates for young people decreased in the world as a whole by almost 4 percentage points over the last decade, partly as a result of young people staying in education but also because many young people become so frustrated with the lack of employment opportunities that they simply drop out of the labour force. Participation was highest in East Asia (73.2 per cent), sub-Saharan Africa (65.4 per cent), and lowest in the Middle East and North Africa (39.7 per cent).

The report says that as well as suffering from lower chances to find employment, young people face discrimination based on age, sex and socio-economic background. Dominant ethnic groups fare better in most countries' labour markets, and the study finds that, in general, youth from lower income households are more likely to be unemployed.

Future prospects depend on growth

In developing regions - which have the largest shares of youth within the working-age population - the fate of the youth entering the labour force in years to come will depend on the rate of growth of the economy as well as an improvement in the employment content of growth, the report says. In industrialized economies, where youth populations are expected to fall, the effects of demographic change are likely to reduce youth unemployment.

But the report warns that this will not happen automatically. A combination of both targeted and integrated policies on youth unemployment is needed to enable young people to overcome their natural disadvantage against older, more experienced, workers.

Such policies have been identified by the UN Secretary-General's Youth Employment Network (YEN), a UN-World Bank-ILO partnership, headquartered at the ILO. Created following the Millennium Summit, the Network has responded to the growing challenge of youth employment by pooling the skills, experiences and knowledge of diverse partners at the global, national and local level.

The YEN has promoted the development of National Action Plans on youth employment amongst a group of "lead countries". So far 10 countries ( Note 2) have stepped forward to champion the development of national policies to showcase innovative solutions to meeting the youth employment challenge.

The ILO is providing technical support and policy advice to countries within this partnership. One such tool is the recently released guide, "Improving prospects for young women and men in the world of work" ( Note 3), which specifies basic considerations, trade-offs and experiences that can be drawn upon to develop and implement policies, including National Action Plans on youth employment.

Note 1

Note 2

Note 3 - "Improving prospects for young women and men in the world of work" A Guide to Youth Employment. Policy considerations and recommendations for the development of National Action Plans on Youth Employment. ILO, 2004, ISBN 92-2-115945-0, available at