#20 work
Therese Azeng

Unemployed and Violent

Around the world, youth want to shape their own futures, but high unemployment is holding them back. Discontent can at times lead to revolution.

In 2011, what became known as the Arab Spring shined a spotlight on the dynamism of a popular movement demonstrating for change across North Africa and in the Middle East. The majority of protesters were young people who took to the streets and stormed the squares demanding economic, political, and social change. It has since been shown that the major catalyst behind those popular uprisings was youth unemployment and their desire for decent jobs.

Goal Eight in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development is to “promote inclusive and sustainable economic growth, employment and decent work for all.” In 2016, the International Labour Organization (ILO) published the World Employment and Social Outlook 2016: Trends for Youth report. According to this report, more than 71 million youth around the world are registered as unemployed. Additionally, youth are estimated to account for over 35 per cent of the unemployed population globally, while more than one-third of youth in the emerging and developing world live in extreme or moderate poverty despite having a job, underscoring the high incidence of poor-quality jobs among young employed people. In regions such as Southern Asia, Northern Africa, and the Arab States, youth comprise more than 40 per cent of the total unemployed population despite constituting only 17 per cent or less of the labour force in their respective regions. In Europe the numbers are slightly better, with youth representing around 20 per cent of the total unemployed and around 10 per cent of the total labour force. The problem of youth unemployment is thus a global issue, regardless of national income level.

High youth unemployment and underemployment present a high risk to social cohesion.

Rising youth unemployment is one of the deepest economic and social problems facing economies the world over, and a particularly serious threat in developing countries. In 2013 and 2015, I co-authored papers investigating the possible linkages between youth unemployment and political instability in a context of under-development. Our central finding was that youth unemployment leads to political violence and armed conflicts. High youth unemployment and underemployment are linked to social and economic vulnerability and present a high risk to social cohesion.

Developing countries are experiencing an exceptional demographic shift leading to a youth bulge, which is a high proportion of young people aged 15 to 24. In Africa, for instance, over 70 per cent of the population is already under the age of 30. This trend is expected to continue as the population grows increasingly younger over the next 20 years. The result of this demographic explosion, combined with a lack of economic opportunities and sociopolitical exclusion, can lead to social uprisings, political crises, instability, and violence. The global financial crisis of 2008, which had a disproportionate impact on young people, especially in much of the developed world, drew international attention to the difficulties youth are facing.

They are underemployed because they are unable to work to their full potential.

In most developing countries, the majority young people are estimated to be either unemployed or living in poverty despite employment. In fact, unemployed young people have a choice between remaining unemployed, living in the unstable informal sector, or being underemployed. Youth unemployment particularly affects university graduates, as many young people with advanced degrees find themselves overqualified for jobs. Many work fewer hours than they would like, or take on low-skill jobs, and are thus underemployed because they are unable to work to their full potential. These are the working poor. The ILO defines the working poverty rate as the share of the employed population living in extreme or moderate poverty, i.e. with per capita income or consumption of less than US$3.10 per day. In 2016, there were more than 152.2 million youth working poor in the world.

The importance of addressing labour market and social challenges faced by youth is vital, not only for their personal well-being, but also to ensure sustainable and inclusive growth and improve social cohesion. In fact, youth unemployment not only has effects on the local economy; it impacts national and regional stability as well.

Inequalities can lead to the outbreak of conflict.

Using data from 1990 to 2009 from 40 developing countries on different continents, my colleague Thierry U. Yogo and I analyzed the effects of youth unemployment on political instability in developing countries. We assessed the role of youth unemployment in political instability and developed three hypotheses: Firstly, youth unemployment significantly raises the risk of political instability. Secondly, we suggest that the relationship between the unemployment rate and political instability depends on overall education levels. Thirdly, we postulate that youth unemployment can lead to anti-government demonstrations, but not necessarily to global instability.

Our findings confirmed that youth unemployment increases the likelihood of political violence. This effect is lower in countries with highly educated populations, which are less prone to political violence overall. For an unemployed young person with a higher level of education, the opportunity cost of being involved in a rebellion or a riot is considerably higher than for an unemployed person with a lower level of education and skills. Thus more educated youths are less likely to participate in or foment public forms of disorder.

Creating viable jobs for young people is a precondition for sustainable development.

The main results still held when we controlled for the effects of economic growth, inflation, education, population and quality of democratic institutions. Furthermore, inequality also had an amplifying effect on political violence. By creating tensions among youth, inequalities can facilitate the outbreak of conflict. This suggests that in general, countries with good economic outcomes are at lower risk of armed conflict breaking out. The effect of democratic institutions is weak, indicating that democracy does not guarantee a country the necessary stability.

The role of youth unemployment in the occurrence of coups d’état is also clear. Additionally, our interaction term of youth employment and the level of education had no effect in the incidence of a coup d’état. This may be due to the fact that though high rates of youth unemployment can make countries unstable, this instability does not necessarily drive a desire to change the political regime by a coup d’état. Youth unemployment can lead to series of anti-government demonstrations, but not to a national form of instability.

If it can be assumed that more employment would likely to lead to more stability, we should keep in mind that a viable employment strategy must be multidimensional. It should include clear linkages between employment, education, and social policies. In order to avoid instability and violence, the focus should be on monitoring economic opportunities for young people, and particularly on promoting entrepreneurship and self-employment. Creating viable jobs for young people is a precondition for sustainable development and peace in all countries; and particularly in countries that have already experienced violent conflict.

Photo: “The flag waver of Mohamed Mahmoud Street 2” by Alisdare Hickson
2012 - licenced under Creative Commons Attribution (2.0)

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