Davos’ glaring youth problem

January 26, 2012

It’s fitting and not terribly surprising that a Davos panel on preventing a “Lost Generation” of unemployed youth, at times, devolved into management truisms about flexible work hours and blanket statements about young workers’ love of ethical business practices. There’s nothing wrong, of course, with HR departments tailoring their practices around cliches about young workers.

But ping-pong tables and work-from-home days won’t solve Davos’ biggest problems: increasingly fewer young people will have a chance to enter the Davos set.

The panelists — including Nobel-winning economist Peter Diamond; Awn Khasawneh, the prime minister of Jordan and Maurice Levy the CEO of Publicis — were quick to acknowledge the depth of the global youth unemployment crisis and lament the lack of young people on the dais. Davos did well to put a few of its Young Global Leaders in front row of the audience.

While the International Labour Organization’s Director-General Juan Somavia emphasized the need to re-imagine “the value of work” in society, that kind of thinking seems to underestimate the immediacy of the problem.

Nearly 75 million young people are unemployed globally, the ILO estimates. As Felix Salmon noted late last year, Europe has it particularly bad: one in five young Europeans is unemployed. In America, nearly a third of black youths are unemployed. I’m not quite sure how to hold a Davos panel that has any sense of urgency, but youth unemployment seems worthy of a Panic Panel.

There’s clearly a large educational component to the youth unemployment crisis (education is seemingly the third most commonly used word this year at Davos, just behind “Greece” and “firewall”). But, structural reforms, as Diamond noted, are slow-moving. Getting young workers doing any kind of job, what Keynes called digging holes in the ground, should be one of the Davos man’s first priorities.

In America, where some 18 percent of young people can’t find work, we should absolutely consider a youth stimulus package. Two intriguing ideas suggested by panelists would be a start: a broader campaign offering young workers incentives for a few years of working for the public good (teaching, social work and the like) and a “positive discrimination” campaign that would require companies to hire some percentage of young workers.

Levy, the CEO of Publicis was quick to point out that, while the average age at his company is 31, he can’t, by law, openly hire someone just because they’re young. If the Davos Man wants to avoid the irrelevance and dissent that seems to be creeping into the conference, he should immediately hire young people in droves. (Think of it as an opportunity to add more “stakeholders.”)

Maybe some of those Millennials will even attend the conference someday.

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