A worsening global youth employment crisis

Last October, the ILO issued its “Global Employment Trends for Youth: 2011 update”. The report warns of a “scarred” generation of young workers facing a dangerous mix of high unemployment, increased inactivity and precarious work in developed countries, as well as persistently high working poverty in the developing world.


According to the report, the “bad luck of the generation entering the labour market in the years of the Great Recession brings not only current discomfort from unemployment, under-employment and the stress of social hazards associated with joblessness and prolonged inactivity, but also possible longer term consequences in terms of lower future wages and distrust of the political and economic system”.

It notes that this collective frustration among youth has been a contributing factor to protest movements around the world this year, as it becomes increasingly difficult for young people to find anything other than part-time and temporary work. The report adds that over the past 20 years, approximately one in four youth in the Middle East and North Africa has been unemployed despite progress made in the education of girls and boys.

The report shows that the total number of unemployed youth fell slightly since its peak in 2009 (from 75.8 million to 75.1 million in late 2010, a rate of 12.7 per cent) and is expected to decline to 74.6 million in 2011, or 12.6 per cent. However, the report attributes this finding more to youth withdrawing from the labour market, rather than finding jobs. This is especially true in developed economies and the European Union.

The update cites difficult trends in Ireland where the youth unemployment rate rose from 9 per cent in 2007 to 27.5 per cent in 2010. The report finds that the unemployment rate could have been over 19.3 per cent higher if people in the education system, or waiting at home for prospects to improve, were included in the analysis.

“These new statistics reflect the frustration and anger that millions of youth around the world are feeling”

On the other hand, young people in low-income economies are trapped in a vicious cycle of working poverty. The report says that if youth unemployment were examined alone, it would seem that young people in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa were doing well compared to the developed economies. On the contrary, the high employment-to-population ratios of youth in the poorest regions mean that the poor have no choice but work. “There are by far more young people around the world that are stuck in circumstances of working poverty than are without work or looking for work,” the update points out.

“These new statistics reflect the frustration and anger that millions of youth around the world are feeling”, said José Manuel Salazar-Xirinachs, Executive Director of the ILO Employment Sector. “Governments are struggling to find innovative solutions through labour market interventions such as addressing skills mismatches, job search support, entrepreneurship training, subsidies to hiring, etc. These measures can make a difference, but ultimately more jobs must come from measures beyond the labour market that aim to remove obstacles to growth recovery such as accelerating the repair of the financial system, bank restructuring and recapitalization to re-launch credit to small and medium-sized enterprises, and real progress in global demand rebalancing.”

The update offers a series of policy measures for promoting youth employment. The measures include developing an integrated strategy for growth and job creation with a focus on young people; improving the quality of jobs through strengthened labour standards; investing in the quality of education and training; and pursuing financial and macroeconomic policies that aim to remove obstacles to economic recovery.

Other main findings in the report

  • Between 2008 and 2009, the number of unemployed youth increased by an unprecedented 4.5 million worldwide. This significant increase is better visualized when compared to the average increase of the pre-crisis period (1997-2007) of less than 100,000 persons per year.
  • The youth labour force expanded by far less during the crisis than expected: across 56 countries with available information; there were 2.6 million fewer youth in the labour market in 2010 than expected based on longer-term (pre-crisis) trends. Many of the 2.6 million are likely to be discouraged youth waiting for the economic situation to improve. They are likely to re-enter the labour force as unemployed, which means that current official youth unemployment rates are likely to understate the full extent of the problem in developed economies.
  • The share of the unemployed that have been looking for work for 12 months or longer is much higher for youth than adults in most developed economies. In Greece, Italy, Slovakia and the United Kingdom, young people were between two and three times as likely to be long-term unemployed compared to adults.
  • Part-time employment rates for youth increased in all developed economies except Germany between 2007 and 2010. The sheer magnitude of the increase in some countries – 17.0 percentage points in Ireland and 8.8 percentage points in Spain, as examples – hint that part-time work is being taken up as the only option available for young jobseekers. By the end of 2010 every other employed young person was in part-time employment in Canada, Denmark, the Netherlands and Norway.
  • The share of young workers who would like to work additional hours exceeded the adult share in all European Union countries except Austria and Germany in 2009.