Youth discontent: Who’s next?

Last month I wrote about the impact of recession on youth, and in particular, the impact of a severe recession on youth participation in the labour market. Will they get crowded out in the short-term as older workers choose to stay in the workforce longer?

But such immediate questions aside, growing youth unemployment, or underemployment, may have far deeper societal repercussions.

The recent events in Greece where mobs of angry youths rioted in the streets is perhaps a telling example. Triggered by the shooting of a 15-year-old boy, an estimated 8,000 Greek youths joined what soon became an all-out attack against their role in the Greek state. As Nikos Mouzelis, emeritus professor of sociology at London School of Economics, noted: “The death of this young boy was a catalyst that brought out all the problems of society and of youth that have been piling up all these years and left to one side with no solutions. Every day, the youth of this country experiences further marginalisation.”

Or as others noted: “The death of the young boy may just be an excuse for the overqualified, so-called ‘700-euro-generation’, to rage at society. They have a hopeless future, since their degrees do not correspond to the needs of the market…. What a pity it is to see the energy of youngsters lost just because society doesn’t take care of their culture and education, doesn’t encourage them to explore their dreams and at the same time introduce and prepare them for real life.”

So could this mix of economic, political and social marginalisation yield the same violent results in other parts of the world?

The most oft-referred to storyline focuses on the possibility of unrest in China if that country’s economic growth rate dips below 7-9%. China has already seen nearly 7 million jobs disappear thanks to the global economic slowdown. And while the current unemployment rate for new graduates is just over 12% – a further 6.1 million university graduates will enter the job market next year according to the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. Some imagine that should growth flatline at sub-7%, the country will fail to create enough new economic opportunities to keep its pool of job-seekers happy, and subsequently could lead to mass civil unrest that would far eclipse the push for democracy in 1989.

But even closer to home, one has to wonder whether the events in Greece are a sign of things to come. Youth unemployment across Europe is far from a one-nation issue – France, Italy and Spain all share similar statistics (+20% unemployment for 15-24 year olds) – and other countries, notably those three, have much more prevalent social issues related to the integration of new immigrants and social opportunities for both new and old. Moreover, youth in these four countries (Greece, France, Italy and Spain) also happen to have much higher levels of education attainment then their older peers (+20:25%)  If ever there were tinderboxes ready to burst…

So how, in a time of economic upheaval where upwards of 7 million jobs have been lost in China, 3 million jobs in North America and perhaps a million in Europe, can governments stem the tide of immediate discontent related to a lack of economic opportunities? The most common response has been deficit spending, in particular on infrastructure, in the hopes of creating enough jobs to weather the storm. But the current economic crisis isn’t the root of the problem. In Europe for example, 20% + youth unemployment has its roots in deep structural, societal and policy-related issues. A few extra dollars on bridge building won’t change that.

So given somewhat limited job-creation capability, how might a new push for participation and engagement by youths in policy-making and strategy help mitigate their marginalisation? We’ve yet to see whether Obama’s warm hug re: hope and engagement will continue into his presidency but should it, it might just offer young people around the world a template upon which to hold their governments to account.

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