World-wide, rates of young people’s participation in the labour force have been in decline. Between 1998 and 2008, the youth labour force participation rate fell from 54.7 to 50.8 per cent (International Labour Organization, 2010, p. 3). In 2009, against a total global unemployment rate of 6.3 per cent (International Labour Organization, 2011a, p. 12), the global youth unemployment rate peaked at 12.7 per cent, representing 75.8 million unemployed youth, marking the largest annual increase over the 20 years of available global estimates (International Labour Organization, 2011b, p. 4). Youth unemployment rates are significantly higher than adult rates in all geographic regions, though with considerable variation. In 2010, the global youth unemployment rate remained at 12.6 per cent (despite a marginal reduction in the absolute number of job-seeking youth), dramatically overshadowing the global adult unemployment rate of 4.8 per cent (International Labour Organization, 2011a and United Nations, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division, 2011). Declines in youth labour force participation rates may indicate that young people are instead engaged in full-time schooling or training. However, in parallel with recent high unemployment rates, they more likely suggest that many young people have stopped looking for work, and that, were they to continue to seek work, actual unemployment rates would rise even further.
There are several reasons for this. During economic downturns, young people are often the “last in” and the “first out” – the last to be hired, and the first to be dismissed. Young workers have less work experience than older workers, which is highly valued by employers. This issue has particularly severe implications for the school to work transition, the period when young people enter the labour market to look for their first job. Employment is often associated with young people’s entry into adulthood and independence, and is of course vital as a source of income for individuals and families.
Young people often face extended periods of joblessness and many become discouraged. They may stop seeking employment opportunities and decide to drop out of the labour market altogether (at which point they are no longer defined as officially unemployed). Many choose to “hide out” in educational institutions, and others engage in volunteer work. They seek to build knowledge, experience or new skills while they wait for better job opportunities. Some may accept multiple part-time jobs in order to try to piece together an adequate income. Several countries have seen recent increases both in part-time youth employment as well as time-related youth underemployment, which indicates that an individual would like to have more working hours than s/he currently does (International Labour Organization, 2011b, p. 4). In some cases, youth are simply inactive – neither at work or in school. Young people who live in extreme poverty, however, cannot afford to be inactive, go back to school or “hide out”. They simply have to find some way of making a living, often accepting low-paid and poor quality jobs, especially in the informal economy. The challenge is to bring them to the formal sector or to rewarding self-employment.