In many developing countries, youth unemployment is more than a lost salary.  It generates personal insecurity and frustration.  It can delay the milestones of entering adulthood, such as financial independence and marriage.  At its worst, it has the potential to spark political unrest and destabilization.  The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) provided a laudable first step in instituting universal primary education, but to make educational goals sustainable, this needs to translate into employment and financial stability.

Developing nations struggle to provide opportunities for their youth populations, which disproportionately affects young men due to cultural norms that require men to marry and provide for their spouses, children, parents, and sometimes extended relatives.  A growing number of young men are unemployed or inactive, unable to start families, and at risk for social exclusion because they cannot find jobs.  We can no longer afford to overlook this issue, as these young men provide a recruiting base for political movements, gangs, and even extremist groups, which heightens the risk of political protest and violence.

Education at the Root of Youth Unemployment

Many countries are on track to achieve, or are making significant strides toward, the MDG target for universal primary school enrollment, however this does not necessarily translate into improved educational outcomes.  Many public schools provide a substandard quality of education and suffer high teacher absenteeism.  Studies in Africa and South Asia show that children who have attended government schools through fourth or fifth grade lag far behind their private school peers, often struggling to write a single paragraph or use basic math.  Additionally, many countries have limited enrollment capacity in national colleges, which excludes students who have a desire for higher education but whose families are not wealthy enough to send them abroad.  

The accumulated impact of low-quality education leaves a substantial number of young adults inadequately prepared for the job market.  Even those who do receive a college education may lack the practical skills needed on the job due to a mismatch between curricula and employer needs.  Due to youth bulges in the population and a higher proportion of women seeking employment, the number of entrants into the job market is also higher than it has been historically.  Job growth in developing countries has not kept pace with growth in the labor pool, which often leads to prolonged or chronic unemployment. 

Consequences of Unemployment for Young Men

Many studies focus on how low-quality education and limited job opportunities reduce a woman’s independence, but the same fate often carries greater stigma for men.  Unemployment is likely to disproportionately affect young men because of traditional views of men as the sole breadwinners.  Young men who lack employment options are frequently forced to depend financially on aging parents and to delay marriage; they are often socially ostracized for their inability to start families and integrate into society as adults. 
Employment obstacles faced by young males are fueling their frustration with their communities and governments, putting them at greater risk of engaging in criminal activities, abusing drugs, or being recruited into extremist groups.  The uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya in 2011 were triggered by high national unemployment, and a dearth of economic opportunities, which subsequently erupted into frustrations regarding religious divides and dictatorial rule.  Prior to the Arab Spring, youth unemployment in the Middle East was the highest in the world; it was estimated to be as high 30 percent in 2013, and continues to rise.   Studies have linked high youth unemployment to drug abuse in countries such as Tanzania and Iran.  A UN study of sexual violence in six Asia-Pacific countries found that one of the main motivations of assault on women by men was boredom or a need for entertainment.  In Latin America, nearly 20 percent of youth can be described as idle—neither working nor attending school—which is strongly correlated with increases in violence.  Latin America has seen an uptick in violence committed by and against young people; the five countries in the world with the highest youth murder rates are all in this region.  Globally, idle young men are easier recruits for extremist and militant organizations, especially if the organization educates the youth or pays for work, providing opportunities that local governments are unable to offer.   Due to years of war, governments in conflict countries notoriously promote militarism among young boys with the view that soldiers are more valuable than educated professionals.  

A Way Forward

The UN Conference on Sustainable Development in 2012 cited persistent youth unemployment as a worrying trend and discussed job development through infrastructure projects, sustainable development and green jobs, and support to existing small-to-midsize private enterprises—positions that often require education beyond primary school.   As ambitious as the MDG to achieve universal primary education was, creating employment that matches the skills and size of the labor market is likely to be even more challenging.  Strategies for the improvement of employment include:

•    Improving Education: Governments and NGOs can work to better train teachers, increase the teacher to student ratio, and monitor schools to ensure that teachers are present, and encouraging analytic thinking rather than rote memorization.  NGOs in India and Kenya have successfully increased student enrollment and attendance by providing free lunches in schools to low-income students who may otherwise be malnourished and struggle to maintain energy levels and concentration throughout the school day. 

•    Vocational Training: NGOs and outside experts can offer vocational training for jobs that are in continuous demand, such as nursing and healthcare.   Additionally, training in urban areas should focus on computer literacy—a skill often not taught in schools in developing countries that could help young adults market themselves to employers.  

•    Enhancing Public Services: Governments of developing countries—with the help of multilateral organizations or NGOs—could improve and expand public sector jobs.  

•    Encouraging Private Sector Growth: Governments of emerging market countries can expand private sector opportunities by privatizing large state-run businesses and allowing foreign companies to enter joint-ventures.  Additionally, loosening restrictive tax laws and red tape for start-up businesses could encourage greater formal sector participation and shrink the size of the informal sector. 

Youth unemployment is not merely an economic or human development issue.  The consequences of chronic unemployment and idleness among young men have societal and political repercussions that will not be quieted by empty promises of future employment.  In an increasingly globalized world where labor and technology flow fluidly across borders, governments cannot just replicate old models of increasing employment through low skill job creation.  Technology is quickly replacing many labor-intensive jobs that require employees to read and write fluently, think analytically, and use computers—all of which require secondary education.  As long as there is a mismatch between what employers seek and the skills—or lack thereof—that jobseekers have, inequality and unemployment will only worsen.  The MDGs shed light on the need to improve quality of health, access to primary education, and other living standards in developing countries to help children reach adolescence.  Now it is time for the dialogue to look forward and address the needs of youth: better education, job opportunities, and social integration.

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