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Murray Edwards College
University of Cambridge

Tackling youth unemployment, we're missing a crucial voice

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    01 Apr

    It’s the economy, stupid. 

    A well-trodden political slogan it may be, but for the billion young people globally who will enter the job market in the next decade, this statement couldn’t be more on the money.

    Right now, estimations indicate that of this billion young people, only 40% are expected to find work if the job market remains unchanged. This begs the question: how will the other 600 million young people make a living?

    This question appears to be on the minds of many global policymakers. A number of northern donor governments, including the UK, have recently been focusing attention on stimulating the job market and growth across the African continent in particular -a continent home to the world's ten most youthful nations- while many international NGOs continue to offer a plethora of programmes to support young entrepreneurs or to help youth develop workplace skills.

    This is a positive step; seeing as 70% of the population of sub-Saharan Africa is under 30, it makes good policy and programme sense to focus in on the opportunity for economic growth that such a young generation poses. 

    That said, the voices of young people are conspicuously missing from the conversation.  Some organisations such as the International Labour Organisation (ILO) and Mastercard Foundation have been undertaking admirable work to better understand the realities of what “decent work” means to young people. However, a comprehensive understanding from young people about the challenges they face to securing an income, alongside their aspirations for work in a changing economic environment, is very much needed.

    This is why Restless Development has joined forces with the University of Cambridge to explore young people’s opinions and experiences of work. 

    In the Autumn, we launched a consultation across our global network of young people to better understand their views on making a living. The findings have been compiled into a report, Getting by: Young People’s Working Lives, which will be launched by young people at an academic workshop in April. 

    This research is not exhaustive. Instead, we hope it will be the first step towards further collaboration with young people to better inform policy and investment decisions that will have a much greater benefit for them.

    What did young people tell us? Almost a fifth of those in paid employment hold down more than two jobs. Nearly a third of those generating an income combine self-employment with employment for another person or company, while over a quarter of self-employed young people run two or more businesses. 

    Worryingly, almost 80% of the respondents to the survey said their income is not sufficient enough to meet their needs. Reasons for this included the rocketing cost of living, financial responsibilities to family and poor economic conditions (few available employment opportunities). It is also important to note that unpaid care and domestic work are also often undertaken by young people, but are sometimes overlooked in definitions of work.

    For many, the barriers to securing decent work included nepotism and a lack of available jobs and appropriate training. For some, higher education has not unlocked the job opportunities they had hoped for and sometimes actively precluded them from securing a job, because they come across as overqualified.

    What does this tell us? 

    Firstly, that “peak youth” brings a huge opportunity for economic growth, particularly for low-income countries; however, simple and scalable solutions to ensuring decent work for rapidly growing youth populations remain elusive.

    Secondly, that there is a widening gulf between the voices of young people and policymakers on this issue, whether at the national or global level. 

    Thirdly, an innovative approach is needed to engage young people in driving the solutions to this big, multifaceted development challenge - because attempting to solve this without young people will be an opportunity missed.

    With Sustainable Development Goal 8 (decent work for all) a priority for the UN’s annual High Level Political Forum (HLPF) this year, it is of paramount importance that young people are called upon to have their say about what decent work looks like for them in a rapidly changing global economy. Most importantly, policymakers need to listen. 

    By Alex Kent, Strategy Director, Restless Development