Out of school and out of a job. Disconnected. Stuck. A generation at risk. A scarred generation. Generation jobless. The limbo generation. "Juventud Sin Futuro" Youth Without a Future. Rise of the NEETs young people Not in Education, Employment or Training. A social and economic time bomb.
These are refrains from around the world since the worldwide recession and the prolonged dearth of jobs, especially for young people just coming into adulthood. But this urgent crisis has received more hand-wringing than real action.
The McKinsey Center on Government opens a December report with a description of the worldwide problem, which stretches from aging societies in the developed world to those experiencing a "youth bulge" in the developing world, from democratic societies to authoritarian regimes: "In Japan, an estimated 700,000 people, known as 'hikikomori,' have withdrawn from society, rarely leaving home. In North Africa, restless youth were at the vanguard of the demonstrations that toppled governments in Egypt and Tunisia. In the United States, the still-faltering economy has been so difficult on Generation Y that there is even a television show, 'Underemployed,' about a group of 20-something college graduates forced into dead-end or unpaid jobs. It is a comedy, but of the laughter-through-tears variety."
Official unemployment numbers those looking for jobs are alarming. Worldwide, young people under age 25 are three times more likely than their parents to be out of work. In Greece, Spain and South Africa, more than half of young people are unemployed. Jobless levels of 25 percent or more are common in Europe, the Middle East and North Africa. In the United States, the jobless rate for young people was 16.1 percent in April in California, 20.2 percent.
Even more alarming are the numbers of young people who are out of school and out of work, as seen in the chart that accompanies this column. A look around the world shows how this threatens the fabric of whole societies. Rather than tapping the energy, talents and potential of a new generation, more and more societies find themselves dealing with idleness, restlessness and frustration among large numbers of young people.
Consider Turkey, which appeared to be an economic star during the last decade. It is the latest country to see massive protests. Not coincidentally, more than a third of the 15-29 age group are neither in school nor in the labor force the highest rate by far in the developed world.
In Spain and Ireland, the "disconnected rate" increased dramatically in a decade. These are the self-described "juventud sin futuro" who have taken to the streets.
Around the world, a total of 358 million young people, larger than the population of the United States, were out of school but not in a job or further training in 2010, and that number continues to increase, according to the International Labor Organization.
This is not just a matter of economic theories but of the basic partnership, or social contract, between generations a moral issue. "If today's youth do not find prospects for their lives," Pope Benedict XVI said in 2011 in Spain, "our today is mistaken and wrong."
This worldwide phenomenon should cause us to rethink the relationship between the economy and the good of society at every level.
Local is a good place to start. I recently came across a 2010 paper by Chris Benner and his colleagues at the University of California, Davis, on labor market opportunities for young people in the nine-county Sacramento region. A striking number jumped out: One out of six 16- to 24-year-olds in California is out of school and out of work. Opportunities, however, are spread unevenly, with the majority "out of school and out of work" disproportionately in non-white, economically disadvantaged communities.
Benner and his colleagues decided to look at regions around the country. What areas are doing best at reducing these "disconnected rates"?
High economic growth alone, Benner told me, is not sufficient to solve the problem. Post-recession, he said, "We have a prosperous economy and a booming stock market." What's missing is job growth. Companies are growing without jobs, a pattern he says we've seen in the last three recessions, which is very different from previous post-World War II recoveries.
Not only that, growth rates generally have been much lower in the last 30 years than previously. And "routine" jobs, with middle-income wages, have disappeared in the past 30 years robotics and automation taking over machinist and warehousing jobs, ATMs taking over bank tellers, computers replacing secretaries.
Thus, he says, "Our economic challenges are not short-term." We have an urgent need to pursue "not just growth, but just growth." We need both "a compelling economic growth agenda as well as a commitment to fairness."
And so he has a book called "Just Growth: Inclusion and Prosperity in American's Metropolitan Regions," co-authored with Manuel Pastor of the University of Southern California. Communities that craft deliberate interventions focused on economic inclusion seem to be able to break the boom-and-bust cycle to extend growth spells; an untrammeled market is not enough. The book highlights Kansas City, Mo.; Nashville, Tenn.; Jacksonville, Fla.; and Columbus, Ohio, as examples of "equitable growth" regions.
In their follow-up, Salt Lake City emerges as a place where "inclusive growth" is a key to meeting the challenges of rapidly changing demographics, bringing people together to deliberately counter the effects of our increasingly fragmented society.
Though the United States has unacceptably high "out of school and out of work" rates, it is suffering less sharply than in other places around the world. That puts us in a better position to confront this problem, lest we risk expanding our own generation at risk.