Unemployed Youth a looming security problem
Jan 16, 2019

Halifax police arrested two young adults on 13 February 2015, accused of plotting a Valentine’s Day shooting spree in the local shopping centre. Lindsay Kantha Souvannarath (23) was ultimately sentenced to life imprisonment and her accomplice, Randall Steven Sheppard (20), to a decade of incarceration. Also implicated was James Gamble (19), who police said killed himself before he could be arrested. This trio falls into the under-25 demographic which, in Canada, numbers approximately 4.32 million people between the ages of 15 and 24 – and is the youngest element of the labour market.

In most Western countries this group also has the greatest challenges in securing sustainable employment. At often double the unemployment rate for the rest of the workforce, this presents troubling questions for all elements of society.

That many young people who are Not in Employment, Education or Training (a situation with the disquieting acronym “NEET”), are trailing other workers in earnings, savings and benefits presents an unintentional burden on the rest.

Widespread Unemployment is a Security Concern
While Canada has avoided the serious restlessness arising from idle youth that has beset many European, Middle Eastern, and African nations, modern Canada has not been particularly kind to our young people. Many are excluded from much of the labour force, opting for increasingly more expensive post-secondary educational programs. Many university and college curricula, acquired at great expense, fail to meet the needs of the contemporary workplace, are redundant, or are shared with many graduates seeking the same types of careers. Often, they are required to remain in the same jobs that paid for their community college and university programs, giving Canada the distinction of having the world’s most highly educated waiters, waitresses, baristas and retail sales people.

At 11.1%, the current official unemployment rate for Canadian youth reflects only the status of those who have already entered the labour market. It does not account for the many who have yet to find their first jobs, a statistic that is growing, reflecting the increasing vulnerability of the young work force.

Life for younger age groups is not easy. In its 2013 report Assessing the Long Term Cost of Youth Unemployment, TD Economics underscores that unemployment at the early stage of a person’s working life “imposes a persistent wage penalty that could last their entire lifetime,” a process known as “scarring.” This wage penalty affects the broader community through reduced taxes coming from a lifetime of reduced wages.
Vena Nedeljkovic, a research associate with the non-partisan, Athens-based think tank Bridging Europe, wrote that being young and unemployed may be a major contributor to poverty, de-skilling, social exclusion and loss of motivation, as well as depression, an increase in drug and alcohol use, and higher levels of crime.

 In June 2015, UNESCO conducted a conference about youth radicalization and extremism in cyberspace in Paris. Director General Irina Bokova observed that the “youth equation holds the key to the future of many countries – especially those experiencing tensions or emerging from conflict. There are some 1.2 billion young people in the world today – between the age of 15 and 24 years old – with many societies featuring large bodies of unemployed youth, lacking education, skills and prospects, in a context of changing family structures, rapid urbanization, and rising perceptions of marginalization.”

Research clearly recognizes a relationship between unemployment and crime. As for widespread youth unemployment, numerous studies attest that it leads to disenfranchisement, discontent, disenchantment and disengagement, and leads to increased crime and social unrest.

A 2008 paper entitled Street Youth, Unemployment, and Crime by Queen’s University’s Stephen W. Baron (published in the Canadian Journal of Criminology and Criminal Justice), noted that street youths, by their very definition, are normally unemployed and without shelter. Their inability to provide for accommodation, meals, and necessities and conveniences that so many of us take for granted, creates the potential for alienation, leaving them vulnerable to criminality and radicalization.

University of Chicago professor Gary Becker takes the argument further with his observation that these youth are being deprived of legitimate income, making them more likely to acquire income from illegal activities, particularly when they believe they have a right to what others have. This can be exacerbated when the unemployed person sees a low possibility of apprehension and punishment in return for high social and material rewards, an attitude perhaps influenced by peer groups in similar circumstances.

Professor Howard Williamson, of the faculty of Business and Society at University of South Wales, UK, goes even farther, outlining the impact of unemployed youth. At one extreme, he says, they can react against those deemed responsible for the situation. He offered Anders Behring Breivik as an example, who, in July 2011, detonated a bomb in a van he parked outside Norway’s parliament building in Oslo, killing eight people. He went to a summer youth camp on the island of Utoya where he shot 69 people to death because, he allegedly believed that “Norway’s accessible open culture was being undermined by immigration.”

Unemployed youth may be more inclined to revolt and spark protest groups. Some examples include: UK Uncut, the network established in the United Kingdom in October 2010 to protest cuts to public services; the international Occupy movement, first protesting in New York’s financial district and subsequently spread to more than 900 cities around the world; and Spain’s anti-austerity Indignados.

The presence of the Internet is further increasing these effects. In 2015, the Inter­national Telecommunication Union estimated about 3.2 billion people, or almost half of the world’s population, was online – and it’s safe to say that number has increased. The Internet provides the most potent resource in history to “see” events anywhere in the world and to communicate with anyone who has internet access. Social media, such as Twitter, Facebook and YouTube were instrumental in the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions, and a major force multiplier for the Occupy movement.

Increases in youth unemployment, therefore, increases the urgency for developing effective strategies to find work for the 15-24 age group.
The potential for discontented youth to have a significant impact on Canadian society should not be discounted. The anti-Vietnam war protests in the late 1960s and early 1970s that threatened to tear the United States apart were student-led. In Paris, May 1968, student-led sit-ins to challenge the Charles de Gaulle government and the capitalist system sparked a two-week general strike by more than 11-million workers.

The Way Ahead
“We need to make the creation of new jobs a top priority,” wrote Canadian business author, consultant and strategist Don Tapscott in The Manchester Guardian. “We need to reinvent our institutions, everything from the financial industry to our models of education and science to kickstart a new global economy. We need to engage today’s young people, not jack up tuition fees and cut back on retraining. We need to nurture their drive, passion and expertise. We need to help them take advantage of new web-based tools and become involved in making the world more prosperous, just and sustainable.”

In its 2015 report entitled, Youth in Transition: Bridging Canada’s path from education to employment, global consulting agency McKinsey & Company found that Canada is producing the right number and types of graduates compared to other countries, and that Canada’s young workers find employment faster than those in most other countries.

Interestingly, researchers found that while most secondary school teachers consider their graduates to be high performers, more than half of Canada’s employers (and high school grads themselves) believe they lack skillsets required by many contemporary employers. The study also reported that, even with post-secondary education, many new employees face the abrasive realities of the working world.

However, at the next level, it is not surprising that Canada’s employers are confident about the supply of well-educated employees. Two-thirds of Canadians have post-secondary degrees or diplomas as they enter the labour market, far more than in the rest of the world. Many find jobs more quickly than young people in other countries, with more than half finding their first job less than three months after graduation.

In the 1980s the neo-liberal forces of free trade and globalization, with their migration of low- and semi-skilled jobs offshore, the dismantling of social support networks, and the trickle-down economics theories that were espoused by national leaders like Britain’s Margaret Thatcher, U.S.’s Ronald Regan and Canada’s Brian Mulroney, just did not turn out as had been predicted.

For most, wealth and economic security did not trickle down after all. Instead, many of today’s youth are left with the prospect of long-term part time jobs, contract work without benefits that today’s employees accept as a minimum standard, and oppressive student loan debts that make them indentured servants of financial institutions. They also see that patronage, parenthood, and privilege shield the descendants of the neo-liberal decision makers from the consequences of that same system that contemporary youth must endure.

Our community’s leadership – public, private and volunteer – needs to address these issues now. Government at all levels must change from creating new taxes to creating new taxpayers.

– Tim Dunne is FrontLine’s Atlantic Canada Correspondent. A Veteran of 37 years in the Canadian Armed Forces, he is currently a professor of communication studies at Mount Saint Vincent University, and a research fellow with the Canadian Global Affairs Institute.