Is Youth Unemployment to Blame for Occupy Wall Street?

NEW YORK (MainStreet) — What does the Occupy Wall Street movement have in common with the many protests that spread throughout the Middle East and Europe this year? They all may owe some of their popularity to the greater-than-average number of unemployed young people in these regions.

The unemployment rate for 15- to 24-year-olds worldwide is expected to decline by an ever-so-slight 0.1% this year to 12.6%, but only after having shot up to 12.7% in 2009 and remaining stuck at that rate in 2010, according to a new report from the International Labour Organization. As daunting as the global unemployment rate may be, it’s much worse in many of the countries that have experienced protests and civil unrest this year, which may not be a coincidence.

The unemployment rate for young people in the United States stood at 18.4% in 2010, well above the global average and an increase of nearly 8% from the rate in 2007 before the recession shook the labor market, the data in the report show. Likewise countries like Italy and Greece, which have experienced widespread protests, have seen their youth unemployment rates skyrocket to 27.8% and 32.9%, respectively. In the Middle East, which was swept by uprisings, the unemployment rate for young people was 25.5%, though this is relatively unchanged from before the global financial crisis took hold.

According to the report, rampant unemployment among youth has contributed to a “collective frustration” that “has been a contributing factor to protest movements around the world this year, as it becomes increasingly difficult for young people to find anything other than part-time and temporary work.”

While the report does not specifically mention the U.S., it does run through the various ways disenfranchised youths may react to a lousy labor market in various countries, whether it’s emigrating to a better labor market or resorting to drugs, both of which have happened in Ireland, or opting to protest the current state of affairs with varying degrees of violence, as took place in Greece, Italy, the United Kingdom and of course parts of the Middle East.

That said, the ILO’s report offers a reminder that unemployment rates don’t tell the full story of the realities on the ground in each region. There are many countries in South Asia, for example, that have comparatively low youth unemployment rates in part because these areas are poorer and most young people must work jobs that are often low-paying with long hours to support their families. Then there are the unique political and social frustrations in certain countries – as seen in the Middle East – that come from having young people struggle with underemployment while the government fosters the prosperity of a strikingly wealthier class of society.

Nonetheless, in reading the report’s diagnosis of protests in each country, it’s difficult not to see strong parallels to what’s happening here, particularly in this passage referencing the previous year’s report from the ILO:

“[We] warned of the possibility of ‘scarring’, whereby the bad luck of the generation entering the labour market in the years of the Great Recession brings not only current discomfort (from unemployment, underemployment, and the stress and social hazards associated with joblessness and prolonged inactivity), but also possible longer term consequences in terms of lower future wages and distrust of the political and economic system. It is exactly the latter consequence that has come to play as one aspect of the Arab Spring.”

One could easily substitute the phrase “Occupy Wall Street” in place of “Arab Spring” without skipping a beat.

Though the Occupy Wall Street protests in New York and other cities may not explicitly focus on youth unemployment – or really any one issue in particular – many of those marching are in their twenties and calling attention to the plight of students who entered college with promises of a job on the other side, only to graduate with whopping student loan debts and rampant unemployment, and who are now calling for the political and economic system to tilt more in their favor.

As much as anything else, then, the Occupy Wall Street protest may serve as a way for disenfranchised young people to make sure they are heard and not forgotten.

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