The current crisis has continued to affect people’s lives across the world, and nowhere is this more evident than in the deteriorating labour market in many countries. Young people have been hit particularly hard and risk being permanently scarred from joblessness and even exclusion. Youth unemployment often means material hardship, dire future prospects and delaying vital steps into adulthood, such as leaving home, building relationships or starting a family. These social milestones are fundamental to health and well-being.
The jobless numbers should be enough to spur policymakers into action. Youth unemployment has risen sharply to over 16% in the OECD area since 2008, affecting more than 50% of all young women and men in countries, such as Greece and Spain. The share of youth not in employment, education or training–the so-called NEETs–has soared too, with only the Czech Republic, Germany and Norway bucking the trend. Unemployment has risen among 25-34-year-olds, particularly among people without secondary school educations.
Six years is a long time in a young person’s life. Today’s 18-year-olds were still enjoying childhood when Lehman Brothers collapsed in 2008, and yesterday’s 18-year-olds have become today’s young workers and job seekers.
What future are we building for our young people, and for ourselves? Unskilled youths face a lifetime of lower earnings and weaker career progression as a result of the crisis, leading to wider inequality, exclusion and social division. They risk becoming a “lost generation” and an additional pressure on our ageing societies.
There is, however, still a chance to turn this bleak prospect into a winning opportunity, as long as policies are adopted without delay to develop young people’s talents and give them a better start in life.
There are several good reasons why a broad policy focus on young people makes sense, even in good times. They are digitally savvy for a start, and for many youths, working in an IT environment is second nature. This should make it all the easier for educators to gear up young people for a global economy in which knowledge-based capital and adding value to global value chains will be decisive. As OECD PISA surveys of education indicate, the easiest skills to teach are also the easiest to digitise. Education and employment policies can do much to harness this new potential.
Take also global mobility, which is fast becoming a new norm for millions of workers and students alike. Policies that engage with the cohorts of young people for whom the world is both a learning place and a job market stand a better chance of leveraging talent at home and abroad, and climbing higher on global value chains.
Youth-oriented policies matter because they advance the cause of building a stronger, fairer and cleaner post-crisis world. Today’s young people don’t need to be persuaded about the importance of fighting climate change, corruption or inequality. But the crisis and its mismanagement have undermined trust, breeding scepticism and detachment rather than the solidarity we all need. It is revealing that the questionnaires on the OECD Better Life Index completed by citizens around the world (www.oecdbetterlifeindex.org) show that civic engagement as a dimension of well-being is given a relatively low priority.
We must invest more in what holds our societies together: confidence, trust, solidarity and equal opportunities!
As a first step, policymakers must ensure that young people are given a proper start. To support their efforts, the OECD is developing an Action Plan for Youth, to be presented at the forthcoming 2013 OECD Ministerial Council Meeting in late May.
This OECD Action Plan will combine policies to boost inclusive growth and jobs in the short term, with actions on education, training and labour regulations over the medium-term with the goal of achieving “employability” and generating decent, formal jobs. Labour-market measures such as assuring adequate income support during unemployment, career guidance, relevant training and incentives for active job search will be key features.
Apprenticeships, internships and entrepreneurship schemes will feature prominently, as will the need to address costs and regulatory barriers preventing young people, however talented, from working. Co-operation between employers and workers will be encouraged.
On the education front, the Action Plan will push for more responsive vocational education and training systems that prepare young people for work and living, while helping them to build up self-confidence. Special attention must be afforded to assisting vulnerable groups, such as NEETs and migrants, and to provide pupils from poorer backgrounds with better early childhood education and opportunities to improve their prospects later on.
The OECD has built a rich knowledge base on youth-related policies, including education, training, career starts, youth entrepreneurship and more, which the new Action Plan will bring together and strengthen in light of recent evidence.
We must help policymakers not only to tackle the scourge of youth unemployment and exclusion, but also to engage with young people to nurture their potential, and to encourage the invigorating opportunities they aspire to. It is high time to invest in young people, and unlock a better and brighter future for them all.
References and recommended sources
By Angel Gurría, Secretary-General of the OECD
©OECD Observer No 296 Q1 2013