The global youth unemployment crisis

By Felix Salmon
December 22, 2011

When Occupy Wall Street launched, there were hopes and fears that it would recapitulate the Arab Spring. Those hopes and fears sprang largely from a simple fact: that both OWS and the Arab Spring are characterized in large part by angry, unemployed young people.

As we come to the end of 2011, it’s worth taking note of the fact that stunningly high youth-unemployment numbers are increasingly a global phenomenon — and that this is a new thing, which postdates the financial crisis, and which doesn’t seem to be improving anywhere.

Here are the numbers for a few key Eurozone countries: you can see not only that Spain and Greece have almost unthinkably high youth unemployment approaching 50%, but also that Ireland, in particular, has seen its youth unemployment rate go through the roof since the crisis, from below 10% to over 30%.

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And don’t think that the US is any better, it isn’t. The US measures youth unemployment once a year, in July, and that series looks like this:

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The thing to note here is not just the absolute level — youth unemployment is now 18.1%, and for blacks it’s 31% — but also the sharp rise. Countries differ in how they measure unemployment, but however it’s measured, it’s going up alarmingly, and the level in the US is in exactly the same ballpark as the levels we saw in the Middle East which caused the Arab Spring. We’re lower than Egypt and Tunisia, but we’re higher than Morocco and Syria:

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The Economist had a great article on youth unemployment in September, saying that its negative repercussions “will be felt for decades, both by those affected and by society at large”. In peripheral European countries, youth unemployment causes a massive brain drain, and in all countries there’s a clear link between youth unemployment and the crime rate. In turn, if a higher crime rate leads to a higher incarceration rate, then a significant chunk of a whole generation essentially loses the opportunity to have a successful career, since having prison on your resume tends to be very harmful indeed for job prospects.

And as far as total future national income and wellbeing is concerned, we’re causing huge amounts of damage here:

Youth unemployment leaves a “wage scar” that can persist into middle age. The longer the period of unemployment, the bigger the effect. Take two men with the same education, literacy and numeracy scores, places of residence, parents’ education and IQ. If one of them spends a year unemployed before the age of 23, ten years later he can expect to earn 23% less than the other. For women the gap is 16%. The penalty persists, though it shrinks; at 42 it is 12% for women and 15% for men…

Unemployment of all sorts is linked with a level of unhappiness that cannot simply be explained by low income. It is also linked to lower life expectancy, higher chances of a heart attack in later life, and suicide.

As for the particular case of America, one big effect of the lack of jobs for young people is a significant rise in student-loan debt. The Economist drily notes that “as they build up debts, not all these students will be improving their job prospects”.

The global financial crisis had many causes, and there’s a lot of blame to go around. But the one group which is almost entirely blameless is the group being hit the hardest, over the long term, by the crisis. And I worry very much about how the global economy will fare in decades to come as this cohort of workers, angry and deeply scarred by the post-crash economy, is tasked with driving economic growth.

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