One of the major drivers of the recent global wave of street protests— from riots in London to the Arab Spring to Occupy Wall Street—has been youth joblessness. Global youth unemployment saw its largest increase on record—the largest since good records have been kept, that is—in 2009. A fine online project documenting the worldwide problem of youth unemployment—and exploring young people's own perspectives on the matter— is the 2012 United Nations World Youth Report (www.unworldyouthreport.org).
Based, in part, on extensive online conversations with young people conducted in October 2011, the report contains, along with statistics, great photos as well as profiles of young people—a twenty-one-year-old first-time migrant worker in Shanghai working on new building interiors, a twenty-year-old housewife in Kashmir who was forced into marriage because of a lack of job opportunities—discussing their situations. It's a diverse group—from mobile phone saleswomen to domestic workers, from Canadians to Zambians—but the uncertainty they feel about the future is broadly shared. For some, a sense of raw desperation is close to the surface: A twenty-year-old Hindu man says, "Because I am unemployed I roam around with other boys and people call me a vagrant. This makes me sad."
The International Labour Organization also has a resource guide on youth employment (www.ilo.org/public/english/support/lib/resource/subject/youth.htm), which includes statistics, expert discussion of trends, and photo slideshows and videos, exploring not only unemployment but also the spread of working poverty among young people.
The 99 Percent: Productive, But Poor
Another driver of the global protests, of course, is inequality and its less-discussed twin, exploitation. This is particularly visible in productivity statistics. One of the most striking features of our current era [End Page 100] in economic history is how productive workers have been in recent decades, and how little they have gained from all their hard work. Lawrence Mishel of the Economic Policy Institute has an in-depth report showing that the typical U.S. worker has not benefited much from her productivity since the 1970s. While workers' productivity has increased dramatically over the last four decades, hourly compensation has grown relatively little. Mishel's report can be found here: www.epi.org/publication/ib330-productivity-vs-compensation. From 1967 to 2011, productivity grew by 80.4 percent, while average hourly compensation went up only 39.2 percent.
Freelancers Fighting Back
One of the many ways this great productivity rip-off continues in our day is through employers simply not paying workers at all. We hear plenty about deadbeat dads but not nearly enough about deadbeat bosses. Wage theft from vulnerable immigrant workers performing manual labor has been receiving more attention in recent years, but the problem extends even to white-collar workers, from writers to graphic designers to psychoanalysts (many shrinks are essentially freelancers). The self-employed are particularly vulnerable, as they engage in many short-term contracts which are difficult and costly to enforce, and may have fewer personal ties to bosses. Because their employment is always precarious, they tend not to have institutions that represent them, or much solidarity from other workers. The Freelancers Union—of which, full disclosure, this columnist is a member—has a website (www.worldslongestinvoice.com) documenting the amounts, and types, of work for which freelancers were not paid. The purpose of the site, for now, is to present information to lawmakers to argue for better labor protections for the self-employed. That's a good goal, but the site could also be used as an organizing tool for workers to find each other and organize against the repeat offenders.
Unpaid wages are also common in the food industry. The food justice movement has, in recent years, been one of the more vibrant strains on the U.S. left, especially among young people, bringing together economic justice, environmentalism, and a concern with the quality of our everyday life. Several websites are vital resources for tracking struggles among food industry workers. One is the blog of Brandworkers International, a group...