Unemployed young people make up almost half (43.7 per cent) of the world’s total unemployed. Young people are more than three times as likely to be unemployed as adults.(1) Lack of opportunities and underemployment push millions of rural youth like Bing to seek a living in the cities.
Rural migrants often assume that employment opportunities are better in big cities; they are often right, although the people in search of work usually outnumber the opportunities, and rapid urban population growth pushes up unemployment rates. In addition to urban migration, natural increase in cities themselves is bringing large numbers of young people into the labour market, contributing to high youth unemployment.
Many young job-seekers resort to “forced entrepreneurship” and self-employment, and in some countries employment in the urban informal sector has risen sharply over the past decade as a percentage of total employment.(2),(3) According to the International Labour Organization, approximately 85 per cent of all new employment opportunities are created in the informal economy. As Bing’s story shows, this is risky, but it contributes to flexibility and helps drive economic growth.
Most young people working in the urban informal sector live in slum areas, for example, 75 per cent in Benin, and 90 per cent in Burkina Faso, the Central African Republic, Chad and Ethiopia.(4)
At the same time, the proportion of working adolescents has dropped in many countries in the past few decades.(5) For instance labour force participation rates for boys 15-19 in Argentina dropped from 51.6 per cent between 1980 and 1984, to 36.9 per cent from 1995 until now. Similarly, female labour force participation rates for this age group declined from 27.8 to 24.2 per cent. In Thailand male and female labour force participation rates for 15-19-year-olds declined from 70.6 and 71.4 percent respectively, to 40.4 and 34.1 per cent for the same time periods.(6)
Yet many young people in developing countries still work too early and too long. They do not have the opportunity to finish their education and acquire the life skills they need for healthy development. Young children and adolescents are exploited in the job market, often working for low pay, under hazardous conditions, and with few prospects. Exploitation, frustration and exhaustion can cause disillusionment and alienation among young workers.(7)
For other young people there is no transition from school to work. They drop out of school early or never attend, and do not work either. A survey in urban areas of Zambia found that most young people had no source of livelihood: 70 per cent of males and 83 per cent of females ages 15 to 19 indicated they were neither in school nor held jobs.(8)
When young people seeking work fail to find productive, decent livelihoods, they can enter or continue a cycle of poverty, with with high rates of unemployment across their life spans. There has been increasing concern among policymakers that the frustrations accompanying longterm unemployment among large populations of young men in urban areas may feed political and ideological unrest and provoke violence. High levels of unemployment among young people, particularly in urban areas, indicate that cities are unable to absorb labour, which in the long term has a direct impact on economic growth and poverty reduction.(9) The importance of helping youth find productive and decent employment has become a primary motivation of international youth policy-making and development efforts. Young people can make their best contribution if cities provide a social safety net, including housing, health care and education opportunities.
The United Nations Millennium Declaration, adopted by the General Assembly in 2000, reflects the commitment of heads of state and government to develop and implement strategies that give young people everywhere real opportunities to find decent and productive work. This objective was subsequently integrated into the Millennium Development Goals; the eighth Goal, which relates to developing a global partnership for development, explicitly refers to creating employment opportunities for young people. The Youth Employment Network (YEN), comprising the ILO, World Bank and United Nations, was established following the Millennium Summit to initiate action on the ground, with the result that the youth employment issue has gained momentum at the national level.(10) Already, 19 countries have stepped forward as to share experiences, lead the way in formulating action plans on youth employment, and committing to change at the highest political level.(11)
Several of the Poverty Reduction Strategy Papers (PRSP) completed by developing countries in the past few years have outlined youth employment strategies focusing on youth entrepreneurship training, microcredit schemes, the development of vocational training and career guidance services, youth leadership training, youth targeted labour-intensive programmes, and the acquisition of ICT skills.(12) Other countries could follow this example and create more employment opportunities for young people.
The skill sets and opportunities for long-term economic security are established in early adolescence; there is an immediate need for expansion in livelihood skills. Adolescents and youth need a chance to make the most of their productive potential through quality education and decent employment. At the same time education provision should be coordinated with labour market needs now and in the foreseeable future.
Over the next 10 years, 1.2 billion young women and men will enter the working-age population. They will be the best-educated and best-trained generation ever, with great potential for economic and social development, if countries can find uses for their skills, enthusiasm and creativity, otherwise they will be condemned to poverty, like many of their parents are.