Azita Berar is Director Policy of the Global Labor Organization (GLO), and Senior Fellow, Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, Geneva.
GLO Policy Brief No. 2 – Theme 4. Youth Employment
Youth Policies: time to change the policy narratives!
by Azita Berar
Recent waves of unrelenting protests, in major cities around the world, express shared grievances and demands for change, even if each has its specificities. Anger against inequalities, social injustice and corruption, and loss of trust in institutions and their leadership rekindle demands for decent job opportunities, access to quality public services, democratic participation and reform of institutions. For most observers, these protests look like a resurgence of the stalled “Arab spring” uprisings, of the “indignados” outbursts, or of the “occupy movement” of the early years of the current decade. Then and now, multiple social-economic groups took part in the protests. But, then and now, youth, who have particularly experienced the downward spiral in economic and social opportunities, are at the forefront of mobilizations demanding systemic changes.
The outbreaks, whatever the immediate reason that sparked each, are a reminder that the predicaments of youth transitions, in work, society and polity, brought to the fore by the 2008 global financial crisis, remain unresolved.
Reviewing the policy responses put in place in this decade, we argue for a change in the prevailing policy narratives around youth at the national and global levels. In particular, we advocate for: a) recognizing the structural nature of the crisis that calls for a systemic response, and b) undoing the present compartmentalization of policy responses and c) dissociating the security and development discourses whose merger prevents and disorients the search for effective solutions.
What we should know
- The 2008 global financial and economic crisis, and the recession that it triggered, generated an unprecedented impact on youth in labour markets, characterized then as the “scarred generation” or “lost generation”. Attention to youth employment heightened again during the Arab uprisings, which started in Tunisia in 2010 and then spread to several countries in the Middle East and North Africa. Emphasis was laid first and foremost on the scale and length of youth “unemployment” hitting newcomers to labour markets starting their transition from school to work. More sophisticated diagnoses applying a range of unconventional indicators of quality of jobs, revealed a more profound and pervasive youth “employment” crisis than that expressed in open unemployment. The lack of “decent work” was brought out. Emphasis was laid on the millions of young women and men who have jobs that are unstable, temporary, low-paid, do not give access to social protection and most importantly do not allow for upward social mobility.
- The latest global indicators show that youth continue to be disproportionately represented among the informal workers, the working poor, and the low paid workers. Together with the new SDG indicator for youth who are neither in employment, education nor training (NEET), these trends monitored over a decade bring out a gradual and steady structural deterioration in the terms and conditions of youth integration in labour markets.
- This crisis is affecting not only the most disadvantaged or low skilled but also tertiary education graduates. It is no surprise therefore, that the Future of work is looked at with angst, including by the most educated generation of youth that the world has ever had.
- The global reach of the current youth employment crisis is unprecedented. Hardly any country in the world, across regions and levels of income, is left immune to one manifestation or another of the predicament. The issue is of concern as much to countries where youth represent more than half of the total population as to those where ageing is advanced (Japan, Italy). It touches post-industrial disaffected cities in the Global North as much as rural and informal economies in the Global South.
- Policy response to the 2008 crisis, short-lived coordinated macro-economic stimulation measures at the global level, followed by a longer entrenched period of austerity measures, did not address issues at the core of the youth employment crisis. At best, it stabilized the situation in some countries, preventing further aggravation of the crisis and alleviating some of the burden for the most vulnerable groups. Available studies however show that even the best did not attain the needed scale and impact.
- Numerous youth initiatives were also launched in the current decade, by governments, including some in partnership with the private sector, and by regional and international organizations. Reviews show that large gaps persist however, between policy announcements and actions and between actual investments and the scale of the challenge at hand. Most actions focus on the most vulnerable and at times, on the most vocal. Few systematic and transparent evaluations are carried out of the effectiveness of implemented policies and programmes.
Time to change the policy narratives
- Aside from the effectiveness of and accountability for different approaches and initiatives, we argue that the predominant policy narratives either misdiagnose the nature of the crises in youth transitions, or are incoherent and compartmentalized. And sometimes, they defeat the purpose they want to serve and add to layers of discrimination and polarization of and amongst youth. Three points are made in this regard.
- First , the crisis has become structural. While low or negative growth episodes affect youth employment, observations since 2008, clearly confirm that the phenomenon is not only conjunctural. Fluctuations in indicators can not be explained by cycles of boom and bust and policy response to the recessions alone. The new waves of disruptive technological transformations associated with Industry 4.0 do not provide the explanation either, since they did not yet produce a massive impact in developing economies.
- The crisis is within the global economic model that is not delivering on social and intergenerational upward mobility. Youth are particularly exposed as new and latecomers into the labour market under highly competitive and polarizing forces. At the start of their multiple transitions in society, youth feel most deeply the widening gap between aspirations and opportunities open to them. Their interface with the labour markets in particular shapes other transitions in the society and their vision of the institutions.
- Recognizing the structural nature of the crisis, it is clear that anything short of a systemic “new deal”, defined at national and global levels would not measure up to the challenge. Several versions of the new deal have been recently proposed for policy debate. They include green new deals or investments in the care economy that aim to stimulate the innovation and decent job creation potential, on the one hand, and the redistribution of social protections and access to services, on the other.
- Secondly, we need to reverse the compartmentalization in youth policy narratives. Most surveys and diagnostic studies carried out in very different contexts have pointed to the multi-dimensional nature of the youth employment challenge in all local contexts. Yet, there is a marked preference and obstinate inclination by policy makers, public and private, to emphasize and address one factor only in each situation to the exclusion of others. The “over-bloated” public sector employment in the Middle East and North Africa for example, or the business environment for start-ups, lack of level playing field for small and medium enterprises (SME), skills mismatches, the proliferation of tertiary education at the expense of vocational and apprenticeship schemes or youth behavior and unrealistic expectations, are among factors that are typically singled out. Such single-minded analyses have led to unifocal and distorted policy interventions, at a time when inter-sectoral, mutually coherent and balanced diagnoses and responses are called for.
- The third trend is the increasing securitization discourse that has taken shape in national and international contexts. Unlike in the previous narrative, where youth’s potential of creativity and innovation is constrained by the environment and/or their own misguided behavior, in this one, youth, in particular the unemployed, disenfranchised and the migrant among them, are seen as a threat to security and public order. Hence, responses that prioritize security, repression and exclusion which can further encroach upon rights and restrain civic and political spaces for participation.
Turning the securitization narrative on its head is to give space for the expression of frustrations and to lay a rights-based platform for dialogue and for seeking positive solutions. It is the multiple insecurities that young women and men experience that should be addressed as a matter of immediate priority.
Recent waves of mass protests in major cities show that deeply entrenched frustrations will not go away by themselves. Populations no longer accept makeshift and partial solutions. They are not ready to operate within the existing parameters of the exercise of power established by ruling elites and the institutions that serve them.
While all generations are concerned with the range of existential questions at hand, youth are clearly leading the civic movements claiming more inclusive and sustainable models of development and governance.
Changing the policy narratives on the role and place of youth in work, society and polity is a necessary first step in the search for real responses to their predicament.
 ILO, Global Employment Trends for Youth- the update, 2011.
 UNU-WIDER, Youth unemployment and the Arab Spring, 2011
 ILO, Global Employmenment Trends for Youth 2017: Paths to a better working future.
 UNESCO, Global Education Monitoring Report 2019.
 Except for China which sustained stimuli packages for a longer period.
 For example: Marianna Mazzucatto’s « mission oriented” investment and innovation; UNCTAD, Trade and Development report 2019. Financing a Global Green New Deal; N. Klein, On Fire: The ( Burning) Case for a Green New Deal. 2019; J. Rifkin, The Green New Deal, 2019.
NOTE: The opinions expressed here are those of the author and not of the GLO, which has no institutional position.