Blogs > Iwan Morgan > The Lost Generation? Youth and the Great Recession

Jan 5, 2012

The Lost Generation? Youth and the Great Recession


As the governments of the European Union countries and (possibly, but less likely) the United States peer ahead to the threat of a new recession in 2012, one common demographic group in these nations is still deeply mired in the effects of the Great Recession that supposedly ended in 2009.  Youth unemployment for the 16 to 24-year-old age group averaged 18.3 percent in the U.S. and 21 percent across the 27-member E.U. in 2010-2011.  In the E.U., the highest youth unemployment rates have been in Spain, with 45 percent, and Greece, with 42.9 percent, which offer a marked contrast to the relatively low levels in some economies—notably the Netherlands (7 percent), Austria (8.3 percent), and Germany (8.9 percent).  Unemployment is also above the E.U. average in Italy (27 percent) and France (23 percent), while in the U.K. it has been around 20 percent.  These figures are not far behind the 21.8 percent youth unemployment in the long stagnant MENA (Middle East and North Africa) countries.   

Although youth employment has been generally lower in the U.S., some groups in the population have been very hard hit.  Among African American youth, for example, the jobless rate for black teens hit 45 percent in 2010.  Moreover, unemployment in the 16-24 group had been growing steadily since 2000 before its acceleration in 2008.  In terms of unemployment to population ratio, which also takes account of those in full-time education, the majority of young people have not been in work in 2008-2011 for the first time in half a century. 

To some analysts, youth unemployment is the driving force behind the upsurge of anti-(finance) capitalist protest in the U.S., U.K., and Western Europe. Others also consider it a critical factor in the Arab Spring.  Significantly, youth unemployment across the MENA (Middle East and North Africa) countries, many of which have long-stagnant economies, is not far ahead of Western levels at 21.8 percent.

A forthcoming book by BBC economics editor Paul Mason, Why It's Kicking Off Everywhere: The New Global Revolutions (Verso, 2012), makes a strong case for the central role of economically disillusioned youth in the widespread incidence of protest.  In his analysis, the new sociological phenomenon of the graduate with no future is at the heart of this phenomenon.  The expectancy that a degree was a passport to a decent job and a middle-class lifestyle has given way in the West to a sense that many of those in the current generation of youth will be poorer than their parents.  

In consequence, in Mason's assessment, revolts sparked or led by educated youth, whether in New York, London, or Cairo, have had a number of common traits.  The quintessential venue of unrest is the global city, where reside the "three tribes of discontent"—youth, slum-dwellers, and the working class.  Second, members of the "graduates with no future" generation see themselves as part of an international sub-class with behaviors that cross borders.  The mass, transnational culture of being young and educated that emerged in the boom years has transmitted easily into a transnational culture of disillusionment.  Third, the sheer size of the recent and soon-to-be graduate population makes it a transmitter of unrest to a much wider section of the population.  It is significant in this regard that, since 2000, global participation rates in higher education has grown from 19 to 26 percent.  In contrast to middle-class student activists of the 1960s, who saw themselves as external detonators of the working class, today's generation of protesters are thoroughly entrenched in shared experience with low-income communities.  Throw into this mix the availability of social media and new technology, which discontented youth can use to share ideas, raise consciousness, and develop their own hierarchies, and the result, in Mason's view, is a new kind of revolution with massive potential to disrupt the patterns of social and political life.

Whether such an analysis is borne out remains to be seen, but it does suggest that the Great Recession and the jobless recovery may be bringing the social pot to the boil.  The main attention so far has been on how governments have responded to the economic crisis, but the streets show signs of being an increasingly important locus for understanding the significance of recent economic developments.

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