What Do Young People Around the World Have in Common? No Jobs

For the first time since the 1960s, a majority of young people lack work.

The Moroccan protestors pictured here speak Arabic, but they're talking the same language as the young Americans demonstrating for economic justice in the United States: They're demanding more opportunity. Despite the middling recovery, youth unemployment in the United States remains at the same levels that put protesters on the streets in the Middle East.

In the U.S., the percentage of 16-to-24-year-olds who are employed has been falling since the 2000 recession. For the first time since the 1960s, when women entering the workforce led to a big increase in youth employment, a majority of young people are out of work. The story is the same around the world: A new report [PDF] shows the global youth unemployment rate hitting 12.6 percent.

Roosevelt Institute Fellow (and GOOD contributor) Mike Konczal points out that the state of youth unemployment in the United States is similar to the huge bulges in youth joblessness in countries like Egypt, Tunisia and Syria—the hotspots at the center of the Arab Spring’s democratic revolutions, which were spurred, analysts say, by the dissatisfaction of jobless youth.

For example, youth unemployment sits at 25 percent in Egypt and 15 percent in Syria; in the United States, 18 percent of people ages 16-24 are unemployed. And while that’s more of pressing problem in the Middle East, where youth make up a much larger share of the population, the question of why we’re doing so little about it remains. In the Middle East, Konczal writes, those numbers had Western political leaders shaking their heads, urging a reform agenda and warning of a “time bomb.” In the United States, we’ve seen most efforts at jobs legislation stymied—President Obama’s jobs bill has been effectively blocked by Congressional Republicans.

Part of the problem is that people tend to make that generational assumption—those lazy kids lack discipline!—but it’s hard to explain the situation with cultural factors. Right now, there are four job openings for everyone who wants employment, and younger workers who lack experience are competing with more qualified people for those jobs.

In fact, unemployment may be creating the larger cultural issue rather than vice versa: Many of us learn the discipline of work on the job, and if you can’t get that first job, you can’t learn the discipline, creating an ugly cycle. The effects will reverberate throughout the economy: People who enter the job market in a recession have lower lifetime earnings, and workers who are unemployed for a long time lose skills and become less productive. All that means slower growth for everyone.

In the near term, solving the jobs problem means doing more: Funding public infrastructure projects, cutting taxes for businesses to hire and invest, and getting bad debt out of the system. In the long term, our education system has been slipping at preparing students for jobs with scientific, technical, and engineering prerequisites, and that needs to change.

But the unemployed young people feeling the economic squeeze—no matter where they are in the world—aren’t demanding reform because of their concern about the long-term GDP numbers. They want to support themselves and do something of value. The powers that be ignoring or deriding them ought to take the longer view if they want the United States to continue as an economic leader. Sure, things are chugging along now, but the time bomb is ticking here, too.

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