Youth Unemployment: A Global Challenge

By Glenn Ashton · 24 Jul 2012

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All over the world the youngest, historically most employable sector of society is struggling to find secure employment. In China an estimated one third of college graduates are unable to get work. In Spain and Greece unemployment amongst the youth has risen above 50%. In South Africa it is possibly higher than this, even amongst high school leavers.

The elitist World Economic Forum termed the trend “a social and economic time bomb.” The impacts are exemplified by the Arab Spring where youth unemployment, combined with economic hardship and repressive regimes, resulted in revolution.

The same patterns exist everywhere – one in five youth in the UK and USA are unemployed. It is one in four in Sweden and one in three in Italy. In some Arab gulf states, the rate runs over 90%.

Global inequality is increasing; the rich get richer while the prospects of both the poor and middle classes diminish. A consequence is the increasing popularity of Karl Marx’s magnum opus, Das Kapital, so useful in analysing the flaws inherent to the dominant global corporate-led capitalist system.

China, the primary source of cheap labour to manufacture the goods demanded by global consumerism, is redolent in irony. The fact that a nominally communist nation exploits its non-unionised workers to benefit from corporate capitalism is beyond logical analysis. Marx would be flabbergasted.

The initial wave of labour outsourcing exploited workers in Taiwan, Guam, South East Asia and Mexico. Today China dominates them all. Mechanisation and intense competition has consigned Chinese college graduates to repetitive assembly line work, if they can find work at all.

Chinese opportunism has eroded workers’ rights and wages around the world by permitting sweatshop conditions forbidden in developed nations. Chinese “entrepreneurs” have even off-shored their own operations. They run sweatshops in Italy to manufacture “Italian” goods, sold around the world as “made in Italy.” Instead of decent work, migrant Chinese labourers and African economic refugees are exploited, reducing the opportunities available to young Italians.

In Africa, mega-projects funded by China employ Chinese contract workers instead of local labour. Corporate and nation-funded African land grabs displace self-sufficient local farmers and communities. These are replaced by industrialised farming projects producing bio-fuels or commodity crops for export. Local workers and communities lose in every way.

Token programmes to address African agricultural production simply entrench poverty by replacing self-sufficiency with high cost, input-reliant, western-controlled farming systems. The exploitation of Africa continues under the aegis of philanthropy.

Because the youth traditionally enter the job market from the bottom up, they are inevitably the first sector to be impacted. Large off-shored corporations, exploiting tax breaks and cheap labour create huge hurdles for local start-up businesses. This race to the bottom has identical implications for young South Africans, Britons Indians or Chinese.

The International Labour Organisation estimates global youth unemployment at over 75 million people. However this figure fails to reflect real unemployment. It excludes those who have ceased job seeking. In Europe around 30% of youth are in underpaid, temporary employment. Half of US college graduates settle for employment, which does not even require a degree. Off-shoring employment has fundamentally transformed the global workplace into a depressing, dead-end.

The astronomical profits made are increasingly secreted in offshore banking havens, bleeding local markets of finance. This stifles real, organic growth. Commerce has morphed into an age of global Wal-Mart malaise where everyone wants everything as cheaply as possible, while confusedly wondering where local jobs, shops and employment went and why robber barons run the show.

Hidden finances mean less liquidity, displacing risk and responsibility onto underfunded governments, eroding essential social structures. The consequent heightened social frustration amongst the youth is met with increasing suppression. Globally repressive post-9/11 legislation, implemented to curb terrorism and extremist risks, is instead exploited to counter legitimate protest.

In South Africa, a politically active and restless youth has become increasingly marginalised as government heeds the concerns of its partner COSATU, the representative of employed workers. The promised post-apartheid dividend remains elusive. The youth wing of the ruling ANC - itself an elite sector with debatable claims of representivity – fails to provide a cogent critique.

The hard questions about the structural shortcomings are increasingly asked by organisations and networks external to the political power bases in South Africa. Some employ Marxist analysis, others simply seek to hold government to their promises. Groups like Abahlali baseMjondolo and the Unemployed Peoples Movements demonstrate a far more profound grasp of global political currents than the trite populism espoused by ostensibly representative political bodies.

Yet just as the US “occupy” movement is increasingly demonised by state security apparatus, equally repressive underhand tactics are employed against those who criticise the South African political mainstream. In China the lid is held on the pressure cooker by an oppressive state.

Increasingly alienated, frustrated youth instead shift their anger to more accessible targets: ethnically isolated traders or minority populations become easy victims. Gangs become attractive because they provide tangible support structures and ready, short-term rewards - just like the movies!

There is little difference in the motivation for service delivery riots in South Africa, occupy unrest in Oakland, youth riots in London or social protest in China. Each is symptomatic of how systemic, structural problems remain unrecognised and therefore unaddressed.

Attempts to shore up the post-2008 economic cas ino economy have proven a singular failure. Billions paid to bail out the system have left the same lunatics in charge of the asylum. The modern robber barons, the bankers and financiers steal the future from the global youth, both in jobs and destruction of global ecological systems. The hidden hand of the market - of invisible money driven by immoral economic investment and labour consensus - requires fundamental reform.

The crisis of youth unemployment is the most obvious symptom of this broken system. Instead of fixing structural shortcomings, those billions of dollars filtered up into the tax haven accounts of the richest one percent. The true, long-term cost of misallocating this money, our money, is increased frustration and social dislocation among young work seekers, consigned to poor jobs amidst a plundered environment.

Ashton is a writer and researcher working in civil society. Some of his work can be viewed at Ekogaia - Writing for a Better World. Follow him on Twitter @ekogaia.

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cwijnberg Verified user
24 Jul

Youth Unemployment

Thanks Glenn for this article that brings the global story into some perspective. However you have failed to answer the "So what" part of the equation - which is what is the solution?

The reality is that globally there are millions of people who will never know employment or self-employment. To beat that drum is pointless. What we need is to recognise and legitimise another forms of meaningful existence, for example as functioning members in community structures, in self-help groups, in true Ubuntu style. South Africa can lead the way here, if we can move away from the fierce consumerism that seems to be enveloping our society.

Can you imagine if we had TV programmes that made it sexy to live in rural communities - sharing and community togetherness instead of 7deLaan, eGoli and the like! :-)

Challenging, changing times need different ideas and new solutions - more of the same wont help.

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MFXJ Verified user
24 Jul

Youth Unemployment

Many of my friends have heard me rant on about the seeming structural unsustainability of modern societies. Perhaps the article from SACSIS (Youth Unemployment: A Global Challenge by Glen Ashton, 24/07/2012 ) provides an insight into the unsustainability – the system doesn’t seem to work anymore? Or at least was predicated on unsustainable growth (growth which made the rich richer etc.) What to do, of course, has to be the next question, because carrying on as we are could just be moving the deckchairs on the Titanic? And what to do for us mere mortals; cogs in the machine? My only thought is one that’s been in my head for about a year now, and it revolves around firstly understanding what a sustainable society would look like; from the most simple level of a closed community upwards to more complex (interdependent) communities / societies. Understanding the nature of Goods and Services required at each level (demand), the provision thereof (supply), and the methodology of that provision. I’m sure this is Economics 101? Capitalism (as we know it) doesn’t seem to be a workable methodology (so why this article on the ticking time-bomb, then; why do Mom and Dad both have to work to make ends meet (unless you’re very rich or poor)). Communism fell flat on its face. I do keep wondering about a New Zealand style model (without knowing much at all about how different countries / societies are addressing it for themselves). Have they got the balance right? Somewhere in all of this I feel must feature a shift from a “me-based” towards a “we-based” orientation; a reappraisal of the mechanisms of money-creation and debt that get people and countries into deep trouble; and perhaps the reconfiguring of the innovative and wealth-creating power of businesses to spread the surpluses more evenly across all contributors to the success (consumers; providers of human and financial capital; other suppliers).

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