A common thread to the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt and protests elsewhere in the Middle East and north Africa is the soul-crushing high rate of youth unemployment. Twenty-four percent of young people in the region cannot find jobs. To be sure, protesters were also agitating for democracy, but nonexistent employment opportunities were the powerful catalyst.
Youth unemployment is similarly dire in other parts of the world. In the UK, young people aged 16 to 24 account for about 40% of all unemployed, which means almost 1 million young adults are jobless. In Spain more than 40% of young people are unemployed. In France the rate is more than 20%, and in the US it’s 21%. In country after country, many young people have given up looking for work. A recent survey in the UK revealed that more than half of the 18- to 25-year-olds questioned said they were thinking of emigrating because of the lack of job prospects.
Unemployed young people comprised a large portion of the crowd that marched in London on March 26 to protest against the economic policies of the government. Fortunately, the protest was largely peaceful. But youth unemployment will continue to stay high, and the coalition’s austerity measures are not going to help. We’re deluding ourselves if we believe the young will simply continue to be stoical and deferential to authority.
Today’s society is failing to deliver on its promise to young people. We said that if they worked hard, stayed out of trouble, and attended school, they would have a prosperous and fulfilling life. It turns out we were inaccurate, if not dishonest. And then we rub salt in the wound by saying we’re in a “jobless recovery” – an oxymoron to tens of millions of young people who are having their hopes dashed.
Widespread youth unemployment is one facet of a deeper failure. The society we are passing to today’s young people is seriously damaged. Most of the institutions that have served us well for decades – even centuries – seem frozen and unable to move forward. The global economy, our financial services industry, governments, healthcare, the media and our institutions for solving global problems like the UN are all struggling. I’m convinced that the industrial age and its institutions are finally running out of gas. It is young people who are bearing the brunt of our failures.
Full of zeal and relatively free of responsibilities, youth are traditionally the generation most inclined to question the status quo and authority. Fifty years ago, babyboomers had access to information through the new marvel of television, and as they became university-age and delayed having families, many had time to challenge government policies and social norms. Youth radicalisation swept the world, culminating in explosive protests, violence and government crackdowns across Europe, Asia and North America.
In Paris in May 1968, protests that began as student sit-ins challenging the Charles de Gaulle government and the capitalist system culminated in a two-week general strike involving more than 11 million workers. Youth played a key role in the so-called Prague Spring in Czechoslovakia that same year. In West Germany, the student movement gained momentum in the late 60s. In the US, youth radicalisation began with the civil rights movement and extended into movements for women’s rights and other issues, and culminated in the Vietnam war protests.
Young people today have a demographic clout similar to that of their once-rebellious parents. In North America, the baby boom echo is larger than the boom itself. In South America the demographic bulge is huge and even bigger in Africa, the Middle East and Asia. A majority of people in the world are under the age of 30 and a whopping 27% under the age of 15.
The 60s baby boomer radicalisation was based on youthful hope and ideology. Protesters championed the opposition to war, a celebration of youth culture, and the possibilities for a new kind of social order. Today’s simmering youth radicalisation is much different. It is rooted not only in unemployment, but personal broken hopes, mistreatment, and injustice. Young people are alienated; witness the dropping young voter turnout for elections. They are turning their backs on the system.
Most worryingly, today’s youth have at their fingertips the internet, the most powerful tool ever for finding out what’s going on, informing others and organising collective responses. Internet-based digital tools such as Twitter, Facebook and YouTube were instrumental to the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions.
We need to make the creation of new jobs a top priority. We need to reinvent our institutions, everything from the financial industry to our models of education and science to kickstart a new global economy. We need to engage today’s young people, not jack up tuition fees and cut back on retraining. We need to nurture their drive, passion and expertise. We need to help them take advantage of new web-based tools and become involved in making the world more prosperous, just and sustainable.
If we don’t take such measures, we run the risk of a generational conflict that could make the radicalisation of youth in Europe and North America in the 1960s pale in comparison.