On Youth Unemployment 

07/11/2013

Miguel Marin is director of Economics and Public Policy of FAES Foundation

 

Youth unemployment is a tragedy. It is so from an individual point of view because anyone who wants to work and cannot, suffers. And it is also a tragedy from a society standpoint, since when a certain level of magnitude and persistence over time is exceeded, youth unemployment curtails the potential for long-term economic growth and, with it, many opportunities for welfare and prosperity.

It does not seem questionable that the youth unemployment faced by some European economies, and particularly the Spanish one, is alarmingly high. But some diagnoses and suggestions for it are, especially those that rely on increased public spending. That proves to be the wrong way of addressing the problem when thinking about the real causes of unemployment.

A fact that is not well known is that youth unemployment in OECD countries has doubled the overall unemployment rate for decades. There are few exceptions,–such as Italy, Sweden and Korea–in which this figure is tripled, and others–such as Germany–where youth unemployment is less than twice the overall unemployment rate, but the vast majority of OECD countries record an unavoidable statistic stubbornness: youth unemployment is twice the overall rate. It is so in times of economic expansion and in times of recession; in this crisis and in past ones; in very flexible labour markets, such as the American one, and in markets famous for their rigidity, such as the Danish one.

There is therefore a cyclical component in the behaviour of youth unemployment that closely resembles that of the rest of the population and a structural bias that makes the unemployment rate in this segment of the population twice as large. If we try to reduce the cyclical component, it will most probably be at the expense of reducing the occupation of other segments, such as that of people over 45 years old with limited recycling opportunities. It seems more appropriate to attack the structural component. And in so doing we must not search for solutions in the traditional parameters of the labour market, in light of the tiresome statistical similarity throughout such diverse economies. The global youth population features some sociological features that somewhat hinder their access to the labour market: less professional experience, a greater need to invest time in training, less stability demands and a lower productivity. Features that, taken together, determine a higher level of unemployment.

However, there is a way to go by adapting the professional qualifications of our youth to the real work needs of the economy. Data such as those recently published by the European Commission, which inform of 300,000 vacancies across Europe in the computer services sector, a figure expected to reach 900,000 in 2015, are embarrassing and should inspire public policy actions in a countries which, like ours, sorely need them.