For at least the last 100 years, each generation has come of age in the face of unique challenges and opportunities that have ultimately defined it. In the early 1900s, it was the emergence of industry, which enabled young people to rise above their economic circumstances in ways their parents could not. Generations raised in times of war developed much different values and worldviews than those raised in more peaceful eras.
For the current generation of young people, the defining characteristic may be the rampant unemployment that has spread across the globe. True, the 2008 financial collapse created employment struggles for all generations, but none more so than youth. According to The Economist, nearly a quarter of the world’s youth are currently unemployed and not in school or training.1 In Africa, young people make up more than 80 percent of the unemployed population; in Greece and Spain, unemployment among people age 25-24 surpassed 50 percent in 2013;2 and in the United States, the youth unemployment rate is more than twice the national average.3
While the issue of youth unemployment is universal, the drivers of this trend are unique to each region. In the United States, six million young people are unable to find jobs, whether a high school student who cannot find afterschool work or a college graduate who must settle for an unpaid internship. In Africa, the problem takes on a much different texture: the continent’s bulging youth population has outpaced job creation, and longer life expectancy means workers are remaining in the workforce much longer than before, resulting in fewer opportunities for youth to enter the workforce. Despite economic gains in South Asia, nearly one in three young person is out of work, due to gender inequities, cultural norms, and a complex [End Page 11] web of laws and regulations that tend to keep young people out of jobs in the formal economy.4
No part of the world has been immune to the youth unemployment crisis, and both the immediate and long-term implications could be severe. Young people who are not on track to secure employment are often stuck in a self-perpetuating cycle of poverty and instability. Their future earning potential is stilted, and they are likely to settle for part-time jobs or temporary work. As a result, today’s youth, many of whom are concentrated in urban areas, face high levels of social exclusion and lack clear access to the safety nets that employment can provide: health benefits, retirement accounts, and pensions. As the United Nations Human Settlements Program has noted, “urban youth life tends to take place in worlds that are largely separate from the rest of society,” and as more young people resort to crime and other illegal activities to generate their livelihoods, the danger can be extreme.
Long-term youth unemployment also has a dramatic impact on the economy at large. In Canada, jobless youth are estimated to miss out on $10.7 billion in wages;5 in the United States that number could be as high as $18 billion.6 The economic and social consequences will likely weaken the next generation’s ability to be resilient as they face their own shocks and disruptions—natural, climate driven, and man-made—which will only increase in frequency, scale, and impact over the coming decades.
Many already have termed the current crop of young people a lost generation, but with the right approaches and the will to act, the global community can find new opportunities that not only create jobs and boost incomes but also improve livelihoods and business practices.
The Rockefeller Foundation’s mission, unchanged since its founding in 1913, is to promote the well-being of humanity. Youth unemployment is among the most detrimental threats to human well-being around the world, in terms of both the immediate economic impact on individual livelihoods and how it can affect entire systems, particularly in cities. As such, for the last several years, the foundation has explored new solutions to the challenge both in the United States and across Africa...