Students at the Hohola Youth Development Center undergo vocational training in Papua New Guinea. The world is facing a global youth unemployment crisis — almost 73 million young people around the world are currently seeking work. Photo by: Ness Kerton / DfAT / CC BY

Yimesgen Messifant never imagined that, at age 27, he’d be unemployed, living with his parents. The Addis Ababa native knew that finding good work would be tough. The unemployment rate among young people in the Ethiopian capital hovers around 20 percent and many in their 20s and early 30s find it hard to secure skilled or even unskilled work.

But Messifant thought he was different.

Like a growing number of his peers in developing and emerging economies, Messifant believed higher education was his key to success. He graduated high school with high marks. He earned a bachelor’s degree in sociology and social anthropology and then a master’s in social work. By the time he was 25, he felt he had done everything possible to set himself up for success.

“I applied for many positions,” Messifant said. “But I didn’t get one.”

Local recruiters and NGO representatives told him he lacked experience for higher-level jobs but was overqualified for lower-level ones.

Messifant’s been unemployed for three years now. He may find a week or two of freelance work at times, but it’s always followed by months of struggle to secure the next job.

“I feel ashamed. The system here, the government, complains about the brain drain,” he said. “But at the same time, here they won’t hire us.”

A ‘grim legacy of a lost generation’

Throughout history, young people have had a harder time finding work than more seasoned professionals. But the job market for Messifant’s generation is tougher than ever.

“There is no doubt that the world is facing a global youth unemployment crisis — almost 73 million young people around the world are currently seeking work,” said Zeenat Rahman, a resident fellow at the University of Chicago and the former special adviser to U.S. Secretaries of State Hillary Clinton and John Kerry on global youth issues. “Too few young people have the skills and networks needed to find productive outlets for their energy and talents.”

The world will need around half a billion jobs by 2030, as more and more young people join the labor market, Rahman suggested. The challenges are even greater for young women seeking work. Currently only 50 percent of women are working, compared to 77 percent of men. Part of this is due to the fact that young mothers still take on more of the responsibility for child care, which limits their availability for other work. Violence is also a major factor — around 35 percent of women are victims of physical or sexual violence, which affects their work attendance. When women do work, they are often pushed into the informal economy — making and selling goods from their homes, for example — or into agricultural work, making less than their male counterparts.

Overall, young people today are three times more likely to be unemployed than adults. Ten years ago, the situation was more promising. But the 2008 global economic downturn changed all that. In a 2012 resolution calling for immediate action to tackle the youth employment crisis, the International Labor Organization warned, “Unless immediate and vigorous action is taken, the global community confronts the grim legacy of a lost generation.”

The grand challenge

“This is much more complicated than anything we’ve ever dealt with,” said Peter Joyce, a senior researcher at RTI International and general manager of the new RTI-led Global Center for Youth Employment. “It ties into economic development, it ties into education and it also ties into job creation and connecting youth to those jobs.”

As the economy restructures in the aftermath of the global financial crisis, a new global labor market is emerging, Joyce noted. But its form is still unclear. To find a viable solution to today’s youth employment challenges, the international community needs the courage to toss aside old conventions.

Joyce and his peers see the center, launched six months ago, as one solution. This unique mechanism allows stakeholders from academia, the private sector, the not-for-profit world and the donor community to share perspectives and expertise in the search for more innovative, effective and comprehensive solutions to the youth employment crisis. In March, it will host a two-day “ideathon” where participants pitch new ideas, test their viability and identify tangible avenues of action.

FHI 360 is part of the ideathon mix. The U.S. nongovernmental organization has been partnering with RTI as well as Child Trends and Making Cents International on a project funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development called the Workforce Connections Community of Practice. It’s an online portal that serves as a forum for sharing best practices among individuals and organizations working on international workforce development.

Lara Goldmark, FHI 360’s director of private sector innovations and Workforce Connections’ project director, stressed the need for multiple actors within specific labor markets to agree on an economic vision and align investments to achieve it.

Youth Will, a new campaign by Devex and partners, explores the power that youth around the globe hold to change their own futures and those of their peers.

The urban rural divide

Equally important is recognition of the global movement of youth from rural to urban settings. By 2030, individuals under 18 are expected to make up 60 percent of urban populations. Young people are already over represented among the urban poor, with many living in slums or squalid unplanned settlement areas.

As such, more and more organizations are working with local leaders and citywide officials to offer support to urban youth. The UN-Habitat Urban Youth Fund, for example, gives financial and capacity-building support to organizations led by young people between the ages 15 and 32 working on innovative solutions for job creation, good governance, adequate shelter and secure tenure. These efforts have helped young people in more than 172 cities worldwide achieve gainful employment and prevent gender inequality in the urban workforce and in urban developments.

Meanwhile, other organizations are working on making rural life more appealing to youth, by making traditional rural employment, such as agricultural production, more profitable.

The MasterCard Foundation is working with partners in more than 50 countries to increase opportunities for youth through learning and financial inclusion. Under its Economic Opportunities for Youth Program, the foundation focuses on agriculture as a path for youth entrepreneurship and employment.

“Agriculture is the single largest source of employment and income for Africans in rural areas,” said EOY Program Manager Alemayehu Konde Koira. “But those who are currently engaged in traditional agriculture are aging. If you see the average age of African farmers, it’s 50 to 60 years. Now we have this huge young population coming up, but they don’t see a future in agriculture because their fathers and mothers were farming in a very limited and unproductive way. An agribusiness development path can provide employment opportunities for younger generations.”

The foundation is working on two projects that stand out: Technoserve's STRYDE program to strengthen rural youth development through enterprise and SNV’s Opportunities for Youth Employment program, which provides skills training and links young people in rural areas to employment opportunities in the agribusiness or biogas sectors.

The partnerships help young people find jobs or develop their own enterprises in the agricultural sector through technical and life-skills training and links to local markets. This focus on agriculture as a business moves away from the traditional view that agriculture is about “working the land” and towards the creation of sustainable enterprises in production, sales, marketing, transport and beyond. The two projects alone are expected to reach more than 80,000 young people in sub-Saharan Africa by 2020.

“If a young person’s technical, entrepreneurial and financial skills are developed, they will have a passion and see an opportunity to move forward,” Koira said. “And the benefit that person gets isn’t just for him or for her, the benefit is for the whole community.”

It’s a common view within the international development community. As Rahman, the University of Chicago fellow, noted, “Entrepreneurship can be a vehicle for economic development, but equally important is the fact that entrepreneurship is a powerful form of empowerment. Taking an idea from creation to realization allows you to create and own your innovation, contribute positively to society and be your own agent of change.”

Data and results, not discussions

For today’s youth, entrepreneurship is a necessary skill. Estimates suggest that there will only be enough jobs for roughly half of today’s schoolchildren upon graduation. New jobs will need to come from the development of new industries, and they will need to come sooner rather than later to prevent young people today from becoming Generation Lost.

An important focus — as many within the aid community have recognized — needs to now be on data and results. But no individual or organization alone can achieve the scale needed to address the complex issue of youth employment. Messifant’s generation is entering a world that is increasingly unpredictable, in terms of the economy, the environment and the way societies are being shaped. The greatest hope for today’s generation is a multistakeholder response that is equally dynamic and fluid in its response.

Want to learn more? Check out the Youth Will website and tweet #YouthWill.

Youth Will is an online conversation hosted by Devex in partnership with Chemonics, The Commonwealth Secretariat, The MasterCard Foundation and UN-Habitat to explore the power that youth around the globe hold to change their own futures and those of their peers.

About the author

  • Anna Dirksen

    Anna is a strategic communications consultant working with a variety of health and environment organizations. Previously, she led the communications and outreach strategy at the U.N. University Institute for the Advanced Study of Sustainability, with a focus on education for sustainable development. She has also worked as deputy director of communications for the global health organization PSI in Washington, D.C., with the U.N. Department of Peacekeeping Operations in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, at the U.N. Secretariat in New York, and in Rwanda with a global health not-for-profit. She earned her M.S. degree from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism and began her career as a television host, reporter and producer in Canada.