Among the most startling trends to come out of the 2008 financial crisis—and the one certainly yielding some of the highest figures—is the number of qualified young people out of work in developed countries. Until recently, the issue has been poised as a mostly secondary concern; a side note to the more dramatic measures of economic success like GDP, national debt and the interest rate. Yet, the further you dig beneath these indicators, the less overarching, abstracted and removed from our immediate experience they become. To the average person, “young people struggling to enter the economy” sounds a lot realer than “the amount of oil exported to China”, or even just “people out of work”.
Youth unemployment occupies a sort of “transitional” level of a nation’s socioeconomic concerns. It’s almost stuck in between the more frantic social discussions around education for the children, and the bottom-line economic debates over the full-blown jobless rate for the workers here and now. That latter point especially bears repeating—youth unemployment, though loosely encompassed in the national unemployment rate, is for all intents and purposes a completely different figure. Here’s why:
Unlike the rest of the population, “youths” (ages 24 and under by EU measures) are largely heterogeneous in their activities. While some are in school, some are employed full-time and some are juggling a mixture of both; meanwhile, some undertake apprenticeships while others start a business, and others are simply doing nothing. And then you have the volatile young people, finding a place for themselves while moving between a number of these positions. But when governments are examining the percentage of 'unemployed' people - whether you're 16 or 61 - they are including only those who are “actively looking for work”. This depends on (among other things) having actively sought employment within the last four weeks.
It’s easy to see how a young person, perhaps fresh out of post-secondary education, might be far from “settling down” in economic terms. They might go on the job hunt one week only to decide they want to travel the next, or maybe pursue further education and a new career path altogether. Thus, the common perception that a 25% youth unemployment rate means 1 in every 4 youths are jobless is wrong: rather, that mean 1 in 4 youths who are actively looking for work are unable to find it.
And so, the rates on this list do reflect the harshening economic realities of the 21st century's industrialised world, and the darkening prospects for healthy job markets in the future. Some of the European figures lie unsettlingly low in a trench of decreasing work opportunities for the young, suggesting the worst is still to come. Home to some of the hardest times in the aftermath of the Global Economic Crisis, it may come as no surprise that some of the highest youth unemployment rates in the developing world are in Europe.
We've analyzed the latest data from the EU’s statistical office Eurostat, and the ILO’s (International Labour Organization) Global Employment Trends for Youth 2013 to rank the highest levels of youth unemployment in the European countries today. When you see these stats (rounded to the nearest whole percent), keep in mind that the rates in “healthy” countries like Germany, Japan, Norway and Austria hover around 7-9%...
10 Ireland- 26.6%
With its economy on the upturn, Ireland became the first country to exit the Eurozone’s bailout program last December. It’s an encouraging development for the whole of debt-ridden Europe, but progress on Ireland’s social problems has hardly begun. For one, much of the country’s recovery has been at the expense of the poorest fifth of the workforce, who've had to endure serious cuts to their work wages and benefits. Equally unsettling, Ireland’s youth unemployment rate only fell several points from its all-time high of 31% in 2012, prompting Ireland’s Prime Minister to call youth unemployment Europe’s “single biggest crisis” just two weeks ago. Another telling point? Ireland has suffered one of the worst 'brain drains' in Europe, having suffered a mass exodus of young graduates since the financial crisis hit. So this number represents only those who've had the tenacity to stick around, with many Irish youth seeking employment internationally. The 15 - 24 age group was the second-largest group of emigrants in 2013, with about 89,000 emigrants leaving the small island nation in total last year.
9 Poland- 27.4%
The only EU member to report positive GDP growth in 2009, the Polish economy has fared exceptionally well in the crisis. But the resilience of its national economy hasn't corrected—and perhaps actually exacerbated—underlying social problems which leave youth unemployment over double its overall national rate. Austerity policies and high taxes on work create dissension between the expectations of Poland’s growing youth workforce, and the number of quality career options available to them. So though growth remains strong, the country risks a slippery slope of high structural unemployment in coming years.
8 Bulgaria- 28.6%
Bulgaria's youth unemployment is on the rise. It hit an all-time high back in the early 2000s, when the youth unemployment rate rose above 30%. However, the recovery looked promising around 2003 as the rate of youth unemployment declined consistently until the financial crisis hit: Bulgaria's youth, while not the worst hit on this list, found it harder and harder to land jobs. The most recent reported figures suggest that the level of youth unemployment has continued to rise this year, from the 28.6% cited by Eurostat for 2013. Bulgaria, classified as a 'developing' country, was one of the fastest developing countries in the world in the mid-2000s, but the country's development has been significantly hampered by the GFC.
7 Slovakia- 33.6%
While the Slovakian government has long been tackling its youth job crisis with mixtures of subsidies for work contracts and placement programs for graduates, the problem it faces, like much of struggling Europe, stems from a lack of real long-term job creation. Rather than committing, employers prefer juggling through the emerging labour force with short-term contracts and temporary internships, leaving a staggering 33.6% of the identified Slovakian youth workforce in limbo. Recent initiatives have aimed to target EU funds where long-term job growth seems more realistic, like small companies with few employees. Their effectiveness, however, hasn’t been proven.
6 Portugal- 38.1%
It may surprise you to know that the figure above might have actually been cause for celebration for Portuguese economists, because the acceleration of youth unemployment in Portugal actually slowed down in the last year - it had jumped by 7% between 2011 and 2012 according to Eurostat. This may have to do with recent measures that saw 5% of government workers losing their jobs, and mandatory longer working hours for the ones who didn’t. Portugal’s emerging workforce is experiencing a record brain drain in an economy where unemployment on the whole is rising steadily—disproportionately so, for the youngest job seekers. In the face of ongoing austerity measures, the Portuguese economy continues to produce high volumes of educated workers it can’t employ, and for a great many of them, the only option is to leave the country.
5 Cyprus- 38.7%
General unemployment in Cyprus - hovering around 17% - is almost 100% lower than the rate of youth unemployment. While economists are positive about the future of Cyprus' economy - the rate of unemployment isn't accelerating quite as quickly as the worst cases in the bottom 10, and an IMF bailout in spring of 2013 is set to help the country along, improving their credit.
4 4. Italy- 41.6%
Very much like Portugal, the most troubling aspect of Italy’s high youth unemployment rate is how steadily and rapidly it appears to be rising. In 2008 the rate was around 21%; by 2012 it was over 35%. The Italian workforce today appears to offer so few prospects to young people that studies show nearly half of Italian youth plan to emigrate permanently to find work. An unprecedented number of them today express disillusionment with their country’s economic culture, which they condemn as corrupt, exploitative and rife with nepotism. With political instability allowing for little headway on reform, and almost 400,000 college graduates leaving the country over the last ten years, the future of the Italian workforce seems highly uncertain.
3 Croatia- 49.9%
Controversially, the Croatian Prime Minister said, in December 2013, that he doubts the veracity of Croatia's unemployment statistics - which has been set at around 50% by Eurostat, and has been cited to be as high as 52% in some recent reports. At an EU forum on youth unemployment, PM Zoran Milanovic acknowledged that the country's youth unemployment was above the European average, but said the figure was 'unusual'. It certainly is; Croatia is one of only 3 countries in Europe with a full half of their young people unemployed. The EU have budgeted billions to deal with youth unemployment, and Croatia expects to receive over 35 million euro of that aid in 2014. While the Croatian economy struggles, with the export rate falling faster than their import rate, let's hope the EU aid goes some way to enlivening the employment market for the country's young people.
2 Spain- 55.7%
While Spain is second on this list, with the highest national unemployment rate in the Eurozone, its crisis is conceivably the worst. Last year, Spain’s youth unemployment rate reached nearly triple what it was only 5 years earlier before the housing crisis hit. Spain contributes a whopping full quarter of the some 3.5 million workers under 25 without a job in the EU. Its dismal social indicators spare little optimism for the fact that Spain exited the Eurozone bailout plan just weeks ago (after receiving 41 billion euros over the course of the crisis), and while youth unemployment saw a 3-point drop at the end of last year, many attribute it to temporary jobs created over the holiday season rather than true progress in job creation. Forecasts see the Spanish economy taking a modest upturn in 2014, but it’s unlikely the workforce will see full recovery any time soon.
1 Greece- 59%
In an attempt to make hiring workers more attractive to businesses than temporary contracts and interns, the Greek government has repeatedly cut the monthly minimum wage for anyone under-25 (by about 32%) over the course of the crisis. You can see how, to a young person trying to enter the workforce, the environment in Greece is pretty unwelcoming. Eurostat reports its 59% youth unemployment at year-end is, like in Spain, a modest few-figure drop from the first quarter. But some sources clock the figure as high as 65% over last year. It’s been six years of recession, and Greek protests have become a matter of course in the face of severe wage cuts, mass-firings, fewer social programs and a government struggling to repay a debt behemoth over 160% times its GDP. So grave is the crisis in Greece that in 2013 it became the first country to be relegated from 'developed' to 'emerging' status.