Youth courage: The search for equality, dignified employment and social justice in an age of inequality

Saturday, September 19, 2015 - 13:31

Youth unemployment is one of the biggest social injustices of our time. It affects young people from all walks of life – informal street sellers on the streets of Lagos to recently graduated university students in the cities of Europe. Youth unemployment is an everyday drudging reality for 73 million plus young men and women worldwide (ILO, 2013). It has an impact on health, education, family, environment, resilience, and quality of life. It is a man-made disaster, which has ramifications not just for the young men and women directly affected, but also their families whom they support, and in the long term their community and national development.

Whilst there is no macro study on exactly the extent and nature of the cumulative ‘scarring’ and ramifications for national and regional development caused by youth unemployment; just a sense of foreboding and fear amongst policy makers. There is agreement on an individual’s scarring, and their increased likelihood of subsequent lower pay, higher unemployment and reduced life chances (see, for example, work by Bell & Blanchflower). Understanding cumulative implications and knock on effects on society remains underexplored (largely because it’s difficult to untangle cause and effect). However, several studies (such as Strandh et al) refer to the lack of confidence and long-term mental health problems associated with youth unemployment. This could in turn have an impact on a person’s or even a generation’s capacity to tackle other types of injustices, such as ability to demand for public services, ensuring corporations pay their due taxes, holding the state to account and so on.At the core of structural issues perpetuating and exacerbating youth unemployment (economic, social and political disempowerment) is the phenomenon of jobless growth. Economists define this as a prolonged period where the economy (macro economy) as a whole improves, but the unemployment rate remains high or continues to increase. The neo-liberal “trickle down” is a myth, useful only for those who want to sell policies that benefit only the narrow plutocracy. This is particularly evident in sub Saharan Africa (SSA), where “in 2013, survey data from the Afrobarometer collected across 34 African countries stated that there was little change in poverty at the grassroots after a decade of economic growth, growth applauded by the financial institutions that claim to lead on development. Furthermore, the ILO data show that SSA has the highest rate of vulnerable employment in the world (77.4 percent in 2013).” Vulnerable employment is defined as unpaid family workers and informal sector workers as a percentage of total employment (see footnote 1).

It is apparent that indicators focusing solely on growth and those ‘not in employment, education or training’ (NEET) at present are insufficient – especially from a social justice angle. Rather we should be increasingly focusing on what dignified work looks like and how we can support young men and women to achieve it. It is not enough to simply provide a job (see footnote 2), it must be a decent and dignified job. Many young citizens are demanding social protection, raising welfare issues and lack of benefits and future training, open data, accountability mechanisms for youth unemployment funds etc. They are angry at being pushed back; at short term contracts, poor education, cronyism, patriarchy, patronage systems and not being listened to.

Many big multinationals and wealthy investors are creating growth for themselves and their shareholders only. Greed, fear, and a lack of vision on collective growth are a few reasons for this. It’s also because in the unequal structures in many societies, the rich write the rules or control those who do. Concepts of social obligations/protection and respect for human rights might as well be a foreign language.


The alternative approach is a Human Rights Based Approach to economics, politics, the environment and society. For young people this means a vision where they have a holistic education,: a dignified job that they have the skills to maintain, and continue to fight for. Whereby they can connect; collectivise and support the livelihood rights of other young people. Youth cannot really be “empowered” unless we challenge the power of those who are shutting their eyes, ears and minds to youth rights, and instead allow new ideas, solutions and humanity to be brought to the fore.

Not only is this a moral obligation, but a long term development necessity. There is evidence that joblessness and broader poverty experienced in youth can have implications across the life course of a young person. It can hinder the capacity of a young person to bounce back from deprivation suffered in childhood, and affect the long-term life chances of any dependents, including and especially the young person’s own children.” (see footnote 3) In addition, the converse is of course that a good education (from primary level) and a fulfilling job enables young persons to get themselves and their family ahead. We only have to look at the data from the Population Bureau (an NGO) that states: “a single year of primary school has been shown to increase women's wages later in life by 10 percent to 20 percent, while the returns to female secondary education are between 15 percent and 25 percent” (see footnote 4).

Inequality breeds more deprivation, poverty and disenchantment. A long-term strategy and vision built with young people needs to go beyond the short termism of corporate culture based on appeasing shareholders. We have created a platform for some of our young partners to begin to present their alternative vision via social design processes (see footnote 5). They are not to blame for their unemployment: they are not idle, incapable nor passive. They are questioning, provocative, courageous and keen to contribute, build and re-imagine. But they are caught in an economy structured for the benefit of others.

What decision makers need to do:

  • Recognize that jobless growth, corporate short termism and reduced & weakened state provision are root causes of youth unemployment and economic disempowerment.
  • Strengthen the role of the state, not only in terms of creating dignified jobs for diverse young women and men, but by ensuring accountability mechanisms to ensure youth employment funds are fit for purpose and include youth in all steps of governance!
  • Ensure that job creation youth policy includes a gender analysis e.g. fulfilling employment for a young mother is different from that for a young male graduate.
  • Work with youth to develop targeted livelihood rights programmes that include capacity-building on advocacy. As well as ensuring youth participation in policy processes at design, implementation and review phases in order to provide dignified and fulfilling jobs (livelihoods).
  • Invest in youth development: because it’s a moral obligation, but also a long term development necessity. Children of jobless youth are likely to be trapped in a cycle of poverty.
  • Indicators focusing solely on growth and ‘not in employment, education or training’ (NEET) at present are insufficient. Rather we should be increasingly focusing on what dignified work looks like and how we can support young men and women to achieve it.


1. Since 2004 in SSA the economy (GDP) grew by 5 percent per year, but this rapid rate of growth did not benefit the largest share of the population, and in particular did not benefit youth – some of the largest sub populations.

2. ILO is often challenged on an over focus on NEET amongst youth employment statistics.