A generation scarred by the cuts of austerity

At the risk of sounding nostalgic, some things it seems really were better in the good old days. Depending upon our age, we might quibble about the music or the fashion styles, but there's one thing we can all probably agree on – the job prospects facing young people today are worse than ever.

The International Labour Organization, in its Global Employment Trends for Youth 2012, says an estimated 75 million people between the ages of 15 and 24 will be without work in 2012, an increase of more than 4 million since 2007. A further 6.4 million young people have become so frustrated that they've simply given up looking for work.

The report goes so far as to call today's youth cohort a "scarred" generation.

That's because young workers are increasingly caught in a dangerous mix of high unemployment, increased inactivity and precarious work in developed countries, as well as high working poverty rates in the developing word.

Regionally, the report paints an almost universally grim picture:

In developed economies the situation is even worse than suggested by the 18 per cent youth unemployment rate projected for this year, due to a massive drop-out from the labour force.In the CIS, Central and South-Eastern Europe region, the youth unemployment rate dropped only slightly to 17.6 per cent in 2011.In North Africa, youth unemployment rose by 5 percentage points following the Arab Spring, leaving 27.9 per cent of young people jobless in 2011. In the Middle East the rate was 26.5 per cent.In Latin America and the Caribbean the youth unemployment rate rose sharply during the economic crisis, from 13.7 per cent in 2008 to 15.6 in 2009. It decreased to 14.3 per cent in 2011, but no further improvement is expected in the medium term.Even in the rapidly developing countries of East Asia, the unemployment rate was 2.8 times higher for young people than for adults.

Now, you would think that given the sheer scale of the crisis in youth unemployment that governments would be taking some strong action to deal with the problem. Think again. As the ILO report notes, the current focus on austerity measures in large parts of the world is putting a renewed squeeze on young people. Government cutbacks are applying a brake on job creation and pushing up already high youth unemployment rates. Meanwhile, cuts to education and training budgets in many countries have led to rising tuition fees, fewer education and training spaces, and lost opportunities.

Understating the case, the ILO report concludes: "The austerity measures currently implemented in a wide range of developed economies bode ill for a quick recovery of youth labor markets."

So, what should be done? Clearly, governments need to take youth unemployment seriously. Providing employers with hiring incentives and improving social protection measures for young people are part of the solution. But ultimately, we need to focus on growth, not austerity. Governments need to get the message that the priority now must be on coordinating expansionary fiscal and economic initiatives with new investments in education and training to fast-track youth into the labour market.

If the ILO figures are correct, there are at least seventy-five million reasons why we need to act today.


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David Robinson

David Robinson is Education International’s special consultant on higher education. He has been close to the development of the OECD’s Assessment of Higher Education Learning Outcomes (AHELO); the OECD’s attempt to pilot a global evaluation of the quality of the world’s universities. It is an attempt which looks increasingly in question; a situation predicted by David ever since AHELO was first proposed. Nevertheless it is worth analysing why the burgeoning obsession with ranking Universities is so flawed as David makes crystal clear. Alongside Mike Jennings’ article it is a powerful and persuasive call for OECD and any media involved in such rankings to think again.

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