As in most countries, unemployment — and especially youth unemployment — is the term that most frequently find its way onto the front pages of Mexican newspapers in recent weeks. The stated concern is that youth unemployment could foreshadow continued economic recession. The unstated concern is that all of these unemployed youth are all of a sudden demanding real democracy; and in doing so, creating major headaches for politicians. Another excerpt from the lengthy, forthcoming essay that I mentioned a few weeks ago:

Out of Work, Losing Hope

A few months before British students began organizing their protest movement on social networks, the United Nations’ International Labor Organization released an extensive report on youth unemployment which warned of a “lost generation” of young people that have given up their search for meaningful work. According to the report, “of some 620 million economically active youth aged 15 to 24 years, 81 million were unemployed at the end of 2009 — the highest number ever.” Not only were they under-employed, but many were “over-educated,” having taken out massive school loans while trusting the advice of their parents and politicians that a university degree was the fast track certificate to financial stability.

In 1968, Western youth reacted to social alienation, a by-product of years of economic and middle class growth. Rapid industrialization created factory and office jobs with decent salaries but often numbing work routines. The suburbanization of residential areas stifled self-expression and induced uniformity. Unlike their grandparents who grew up during the depression, or their parents who grew up during times of war, the youth of 1968 had all of their basic needs (food, shelter, safety) met. But their higher needs (a sense of belonging, esteem, self-actualization) were still wanting.

Similarly, the youth of today are also products of extreme, global economic growth. Even taking the 2008 financial crisis into account, the entire global economy still doubled in size from 2000 – 2010. In 2009 The Economist magazine declared that “for the first time in history more than half the world is middle-class.” Furthermore, according to World Bank data, all levels of school enrollment have skyrocketed over the past ten years.

In other words, depending on your definitions and methodologies, a majority of youth across the world are now growing up in middle class homes and attending secondary education. They enter adulthood with greater schooling, skills, and expectations than their parents, but rarely with secure employment. The invention of the automobile created millions of jobs in the 20th century, whereas one of today’s most talked-about companies, Facebook, has just over 1,000 employees. Today’s youth grew up ready to take on the world, but too many are left working in coffee shops and supermarkets. Around the world this phenomenon was quickly adapted by local politicians and pundits. Writing for Bloomberg Businessweek, Peter Coy offers an assortment of buzzwords:

In Tunisia, the young people who helped bring down a dictator are called hittistes—French-Arabic slang for those who lean against the wall. Their counterparts in Egypt, who on Feb. 1 forced President Hosni Mubarak to say he won’t seek reelection, are the shabab atileen, unemployed youths. The hittistes and shabab have brothers and sisters across the globe. In Britain, they are NEETs—”not in education, employment, or training.” In Japan, they are freeters: an amalgam of the English word freelance and the German word Arbeiter, or worker. Spaniards call them mileuristas, meaning they earn no more than 1,000 euros a month. In the U.S., they’re “boomerang” kids who move back home after college because they can’t find work. Even fast-growing China, where labor shortages are more common than surpluses, has its “ant tribe”—recent college graduates who crowd together in cheap flats on the fringes of big cities because they can’t find well-paying work.

In Mexico they are called “ninis” — shorthand for “neither studies nor works” — and they have been blamed by pundits for the increase in the country’s violence. One governor even went so far as to propose mandatory military service for all Mexican youth who are not enrolled in school or employed.

Mandatory military service … there’s a great way to increase the country’s already swelling number of human rights abuses perpetrated by the military. According to an article this week in El Universal more than 20% of Mexicans between 12 and 29 years old are neither enrolled in school nor employed. The article goes on to report that state governors are now in a race to seek federal funding for programs that would provide young people with workshops, scholarships, and cultural activities. I wholeheartedly support community-based social spending on youth. I witnessed Medellín transform itself by constructing modern libraries and public soccer fields in the poorest and most violent neighborhoods of the city. The problem is that old, elite politicians rarely understand how to design infrastructure and services for young people.

One suggestion is for government agencies to work with groups like Reboot with design-centric, youth perspectives on creating social services. Another piece of free advice for governments is to look toward the country with the lowest youth unemployment rate in the world, Austria:

In Austria apprenticeship training takes places at two different sites: company-based training of apprentices is complemented by compulsory attendance of a part-time vocational school for apprentices [Berufsschule]. Currently about 40 per cent of all Austrian teenagers enter apprenticeship training upon completion of compulsory education. Upon completion of apprenticeship training about 40 to 44 per cent of all apprentices continue to work for the company where they were trained. All in all about 40,000 companies train approximately 120,000 apprentices, which corresponds to an average of 3 apprentices per company.

Monocle Magazine has a great video on the apprenticeship program in Vienna, with a focus on craftsmanship.

Next week the United Nations General Assembly will hold a high-level meeting on youth with a major focus on unemployment and sustainable development. Unfortunately, the planned discussions seem more concerned with vague platitudes (“access to education, take advantage of new technologies, promote social inclusion”) rather than specific case studies and concrete proposals.