The global reality of young people employability

Posted: 2016-09-12
Written by: EU Network
Category: Battle of ideas
Tagged: youth unemployment youth global global trends

Global Challenge: youth unemployment and working poverty,  and gender gap in youth labour force participation. Global development STOPPED?

The global youth unemployment rate is on the rise after a number of years of improvement and is expected to reach 13.1 % by the end of this year.  It is very close to its historic peak at 13.2 % in 2013 and where it is expected to remain in 2017. The deterioration is particularly marked in emerging countries where the unemployment rate is predicted to rise to 13.7 % in 2017 or  53.5 million unemployed youth, compared to 52.9 million in 2015.

The youth unemployment rate in developing countries is expected to remain at  9.5 % this year. In terms of absolute numbers it may reach 7.9 million unemployed youth in 2017, according to the latest International Labour Organization calculations.

Youth unemployment and working poverty trends and projections to 2017

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Source: International Labour Organization  calculations based on October 2015 update of the model in Kapsos and Bourmpoula (2013) and International Labour Organization Research Department’s Trends Econometric Models, April 2016.

Lowering youth unemployment by improving access to stable work opportunities remains the key objective in developed countries, where the youth unemployment rate is expected to remain at the highest level in global terms – at 14.5 % in 2016 and 14.3 % in 2017 despite continuing its downward trend, which started in 2013 when youth unemployment was close to 17.5 %. The youth unemployment rate in emerging countries is set to rise reaching  13.6 % in 2016 and 13.7 % in 2017  translating into an additional 0.6 million unemployed youth compared to 2015.

Youth unemployment trends and projections by region

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Source: International Labour Organization  calculations (2016).

The fragile economic outlook is putting further pressure on the already weak labour market prospects of youth around the globe. For young people the lack of employment opportunities is often the primary factor discouraging their participation in the labour market.

International Labour Organization  latest data and projections show that in most of the other regions, youth unemployment rates have remained relatively stable.

Northern Africa: The incidence of unemployment among youth in the region is expected to remain elevated at 29.3 % in 2016, representing the second highest rate across all regions. The slight improvement in the regional figures during 2016 stems from improvements in Egypt and Tunisia, two countries that experienced recent declines but where youth unemployment rates still remain high. A further decline in the regional youth unemployment rate is expected in 2017, when it should reach 29.2 %.


Sub-Saharan Africa: The youth unemployment rate in sub-Saharan Africa is expected to continue on its downward trajectory, which began in 2012, reaching 10.9 % in 2016 and decreasing slightly to 10.8 % in the following year. However, the unemployment outlook for youth in major countries of the region remains quite mixed. In South Africa, more than half of all active youth are expected to remain unemployed in 2016, representing the highest youth unemployment rate in the region.


Latin America and the Caribbean: The region is expected to show the largest increase in the youth unemployment rate, which is estimated to reach 16.8 % in 2016, up from 15.7 % in 2015 – this compares with a low of 13.8 % achieved in 2008. It is expected to climb further to 17.1 % in 2017, implying an increase in the regional tally of unemployed young people of about 0.8 million in comparison to 2015 figures. The impact of the uncertain economic situation in Brazil is a major factor in the overall regional estimates for 2016, together with growing youth unemployment rates in Argentina.
Arab States: The youth unemployment rate in the Arab States will remain the highest globally at 30.6 % in 2016. Geopolitical tensions will continue to weigh on youth employment prospects in other countries of the region.


Eastern Asia: The youth unemployment rate is expected to edge up slightly to 10.7 % in 2016, from 10.6 % in 2015, continuing the upward trend that has been evident since 2011. However, the number of unemployed youth in the region is expected to decrease to 11 million in 2017, down from 11.9 million in 2015 (due to a decline in the number of youth participating in the labour market and remaining in education instead).

Southern Asia: The share of unemployed youth in the region should remain stable at 10.9 % in 2016 and 2017. Consequently, the total number of unemployed youth – representing nearly 20 % of unemployed youth worldwide – will remain just below 14 million. The youth unemployment rate in the region’s largest economy, India, is expected to remain slightly below the regional average in 2016. Youth unemployment rates in Pakistan and Bangladesh are expected to decline, though remaining slightly above the average rate.

South-Eastern Asia and the Pacific: The region is expected to show a steady increase in the youth unemployment rate over the coming years: rising from 12.4 % in 2015 to 13.0 % in 2016 and reaching 13.6 % in 2017. This means that, by 2017, more than half a million youth will have joined the pool of unemployed in the region. This increase is largely driven by adverse developments in Indonesia, where youth unemployment is currently above 20 % and expected to rise considerably over the next two years.

Europe: According to the latest estimates  of International Labour Organization,  the youth unemployment rate in the European Union is expected to reach 19.2 % in 2016 and 18.4 % in 2017, down from 20.3 % in 2015. This means that the number of unemployed youth in the region is expected to decline by half a million, from 4.7 million in 2015 to 4.2 million in 2017.

In regions at a lower stage of economic development, however, adolescents are often called upon to supplement household income, which in turn may force them to leave education and take up any employment opportunity, usually in poorly paid, low-quality jobs. For instance, participation rates of youth in the age cohort 15–19 years old remain particularly elevated, by international standards, in South-Eastern Asia and the Pacific (at 32.6 % in 2016) and sub-Saharan Africa (at 45.2 %) – two regions where gross enrolment rates in upper secondary education are relatively low, at around 68 % and 38 %, respectively, and working poverty rates are among the highest globally.

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Unemployment figures understate the true extent of youth labour market challenges since large numbers of young people are working, but do not earn enough to lift themselves out of poverty. In fact, roughly 156 million youth in emerging and developing countries live in extreme poverty (it means on less than US $1.90 per day) or in moderate poverty (it means  between US $1.90 and US $3.10 per day) despite being in employment. Moreover, youth exhibit a higher incidence of working poverty than adults: 37.7 % of working youth are living in extreme or moderate poverty in 2016, compared to 26 % of working adults. Meanwhile, in developed countries with available information, youth are more at risk of relative poverty defined as living on less than 60 % of median income despite having a job. For  example, the share of employed youth categorized as being at risk of poverty was 12.9 % in the European Union in 2014, compared to 9.6 % of working adults, according to the latest International Labour Organization calculations.

The reality is that young people employability has become  a complex issue, which depends on a number of economic and social factors, each potentially shaping their decisions to pursue an educational pathway or participate in the labour market. Young people  investing in their education  increase their likelihood of finding quality employment in the future and at the same time entering the labour market immediately after the end of the compulsory education period, so contributing to the accumulation of household income but possibly reducing their earnings potential and future chances of career advancement. As youth unemployment rates remain persistently high and transitions from education into work become increasingly difficult, a growing share of youth are neither employed, nor in education or training a status which carries risks of skills deterioration, underemployment and discouragement.

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Across labour market indicators, such as unemployment rates, labour force participation and employment figures, wide disparities exist between young men and women. Gender gaps in the labour market are just one component, but they represent an important wider gender-based inequalities in society. Moreover, factors that determine youth participation rates are often closely interrelated, making it difficult to isolate the impact of any one factor. Socio-cultural factors that keep young women from participating in the labour market are also likely to correspond to reduced access to education for women. Reductions in gender disparities have been evident in a number of regions over the past decade. The largest gaps between young male and female labour force participation rates in 2016 are in Southern Asia, the Arab States and Northern Africa.

The trends in these three regions have been largely attributed to socio-cultural factors. Indeed, for women, gaining a higher level of educational attainment does not necessarily improve their chances of making a successful transition into the labour market, particularly in the Arab States and Northern Africa. For instance, for women, the decision to stay in education or enter the labour market is influenced by a number of social, cultural or political barriers, in addition to the purely economic factors. However, these gaps still characterize the labour market in much of the world by persistently high female youth unemployment figures and low female labour force participation rates.

Gender gap in youth labour force participation rates in 2016 (%; female- male)

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Source: International Labour Organization  calculations (2016).

Through both direct and indirect effects, gender gaps in employment are likely to have a significant impact on growth by reducing the average quality of human capital and productivity.  In this regard, there is evidence that greater gender equality in employment can contribute economic growth and poverty alleviation.  It is imperative to continue to protect girls and women through the times of crisis to build the human capital of the next generations.  Increasing productive opportunities for girls and women, may lead to women gaining greater intra-household bargaining power, which frequently translates into increased investment in their children’s education – particularly in developing countries with low levels of female school enrolment.

According to different calculations, it is estimated that raising the female labour force participation rate to the country-specific male level would have the potential to reduce poverty and increase growth by lifting per capita income by up to 34 percentage points. Therefore, it will be critical to ensure that the gender gaps in the youth labour market are also addressed and tackled in order to achieve the sustainable development of economies.  Women are not only vulnerable or victims: if provided opportunity, they can be important agents of change towards economy recovery. Women’s economic empowerment should be a core  strengthening  women not only to have control over their lives but also  creating equitable societies.

Young people’s integration into the labour market has become a huge global challenge and to tackle youth unemployment is crucial for sustainable global development.

Sintija Bernava, President, Chairwoman of the Board of the Non Governmental Organisation ‘’Donum Animus’’, Latvia (European Union). Sintija Bernava holds  a Bachelor Degree in Political Sciences, Master Degree in Public Administration. Sintija has a long-standing experience in working for the Latvian  Parliament and Government (State Chancellery) as well implementing local and international youth social inclusion and empowerment projects.

Sintija Bernava is only Scholar of the European  Union of the  Ministry of External Affairs of India, Government of India ITEC study program ‘’Entrepreneurship Education to Strengthen Emerging Economies" at the  Entrepreneurship Development Institute of India.

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