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The Global Challenge of Urban Youth Unemployment:

A Scope Paper



Urban youth unemployment by some accounts is one of the world’s greatest challenges alongside climate change, infectious disease, food security, and terrorism/conflict. This study will examine multiple dimensions of the challenge ranging from demographics to social media. It will explore the hypothesis that volunteer service has the potential of being a leading component of effective programs to alleviate urban youth unemployment.


The Nature of the Problem


More than half of the world’s population is urban and most projections put the share of urban population in total population in 2050 around 70 percent. At the same time, job markets around the world are changing rapidly away from the norm of the past 50 years when most high school and college graduates in the advanced countries went to work for companies offering long-term employment with compensation compatible with a middle-income life style and with health and pension benefits. One result of these two trends is substantial populations of unemployed or underemployed urban youth in large cities around the world, in countries as different as the United States, China, and Nigeria.


Coinciding with these trends is aging populations, creating concerns about the ability of countries to maintain the lifestyles of their elderly citizens, the bulk of whom are unemployed. It is hard to see a large population of older people becoming socially destructive. By contrast, it is easy to imagine unemployed youth “running amok”: resorting to violent antisocial behavior. At worst, urban environments in many countries might become dominated by gangs of unemployed youth that diminish the general well being of their urban communities.


Dimensions of the Problem


· Demography. Declining fertility will lead to smaller cohorts of youth in the future. This trend could be a major mitigating factor by pushing up wages for entry-level positions.


· Gender. The risks of socially destructive behavior appear to be higher for unemployed young men. At the same time, women are getting more education and opting for careers instead of being simply wives and mothers, which could exacerbate unemployment among men.


· Technology. The internet, smartphones, and social media are reshaping the lives of young men and women around the world as they grow up. It is an open question whether these and other technology changes such as robotics will aggravate or mitigate the youth unemployment problem.


· The work place. House-sharing, job-sharing and other forms of sharing have grown rapidly in the past twenty years in response, it appears, to entry-level wage suppression. Employers have been outsourcing tasks to individuals and groups with no long-term employment security. If this trend continues, it could exacerbate the problem of urban youth unemployment. “Maker spaces” have the potential of helping youth find a niche in the work place of the future.


· Sports. Individual and team sports and other forms of athletics have grown exponentially over the past century as the world has urbanized, to a large extent reflecting evidence that physical exercise is associated with good health. Expanding opportunities for urban youth to engage in athletics could be effective in mitigating the problem of urban youth unemployment.


· Gangs and Teams. Gangs are largely an urban phenomenon and they have been engaging for the most part in criminal and other socially disruptive activities. Governments in many countries have policies and programs aimed at limiting the formation of gangs and encouraging them to engage in socially productive activity. The successes and failures of these policies and programs may point to better strategies in the future. Government-supported “work teams” could be one such strategy.


· Community Service. A strong service ethic exists in the United States. It is reflected in a growing number of high schools and colleges that include community service as a requirement of graduation. Community service, mutual self-help, is a common feature in other cultures around the world, and a positive value in most religions. At the same time, patterns of income inequality and social divisiveness may be moving human behavior in narrower and more socially unhealthy directions. These meta features may have a bearing on the design of effective programs to mitigate the problem of urban youth unemployment.


· The urban environment. In a world where many national governments have become less capable of addressing emerging social problems, cities have shown a remarkable ability to innovate and adapt. There may, however, be limits to how urbanized a country can become and still see the well being of the population improve. A point may be reached where urban youth will migrate to rural areas to have a better lifestyle.




The study will begin with a literature search and the identification of scholars and institutions that are doing research on urban youth unemployment. Then a series of interviews will be undertaken with policymakers and program managers in half a dozen cities mostly in emerging market countries (Jakarta, Bangkok, Kolkata, Cairo, Nairobi).




A series of short opinion pieces starting in the first year. A working paper or report or two in the second year. A forum at Brookings in the third year. Possibly an edited volume in the fourth year.

Lex Rieffel

Nonresident Senior Fellow

Global Economy and Development Program

1 August 2017

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