Long Term Work Engagement: The Message from Youth Unemployment

Youth unemployment is a current crisis with a huge potential for becoming a much worse crisis. Organizations announce that downsizing will occur through attrition without acknowledging that this approach kills opportunities. As boomers retire, they seem to take their jobs with them, leaving nothing for the next generation to build upon.

A significant issue in the current lacklustre economies of North America and Europe is structural v cyclical unemployment. Cyclical is easier. When the economy improves, however that happens, the jobs will return. The people who have been sitting idle will return to work. Structural is tough. When the economy improves, jobs will come back, but they’ll be different jobs from those that disappeared. They will require different skills, values, and lifestyles. Only a few of the people sitting idle will be able to land these jobs.

A development that pushes towards the structural side of the equation is the high rate of youth unemployment. Here are some youth unemployment rates around the world in 2011:

Egypt 25%
Lebanon 21%
Tunisia 30%
Britain 20%
Spain 44%
Euro Area Overall 20%
USA 25%
Canada 17%


The insidious quality of youth unemployment is that young people are missing opportunities to gain work experience including the skills, attitudes, and day-to-day habits that make up working life. Without this track record, they are unlikely to ever catch up monetarily. Work engagement rests upon experience. People become energized and involved by actively participating in meaningful work. This quality builds over time.

In a recent op-ed Michael Spence argued that many jobs have disappeared. He points out that much of the job growth prior to the economic meltdown were in sectors that were buffered from global competition: construction, retail, services. These are activities that must happen on site. The benefit of these sectors is that the jobs are not shipped off-shore. The problem with these sectors is that the jobs are directly tied to the current health of the national economy. While local governments and businesses cut their spending, there will be little if any job growth in these sectors.

Education makes a huge difference. A large percentage of the disappearing jobs were those that required little formal education. For example, the advantage that Canada shows v other economies is that it has a huge natural resource sector with many jobs requiring minimal credentials.

What To Do

Creating employment for young people makes a vital contribution. On a local level, organizations can strive to find ways of creating part-time jobs, summer positions, or co-op positions.

On a broader level, we need a better idea of future jobs. Too many retraining programs have fallen flat, producing skills that transferred poorly into actual work situations or just misreading the opportunities that would emerge. We need a more effective, creative process of imaging the future.

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