M-Theory: The lost potential of under-employed youth

Written by: Melanie Baker | 12 December 2019 | M-Theory, Opinion

Youth underemployment and unemployment come up at times as sub-issues in bigger social issues discussions – the future of work, marginalized communities, etc. But considering it as a sub-issue makes it easy to miss the true scale of risk involved.

At the beginning of this Solvable episode on youth unemployment in South Africa, a couple of stats really punched me in the brain. Around 40 per cent of youth there – defined here as aged 18-34 – are unemployed or do not have stable employment. 

That’s a huge number of lives affected. But it’s also just the beginning. Because it’s not like they’ll suddenly be on their way to stellar careers when they hit 35. Currently, that 40 per cent are NEVER expected to secure stable work. 

Take a moment and consider how that would shape the trajectory of your adult life. What plans you could never make, or goals you could never achieve.

“Fortunately,” the youth unemployment rate in Canada was 11.6 per cent in November, considerably lower than in South Africa, but also nearly double the overall adult unemployment rate of 5.9 per cent that month.

Now, maybe we’re heading toward a future where robots take over all our jobs and universal basic income lines our pockets, or maybe we aren’t. But even if that’s the future, that’s not the world we live in right now, where people are still expected to work to pay for… well, living.

The bigger risk facing under- and unemployed young people is the suffering that’s already happening in our current system, as well as the loss of potential (or potential being warped into something negative).

If young people today are likely to be the first generation that does not do better than their parents, what does that really mean?

How much of life do you miss out on when consistent work at a living wage (at the very least)  isn’t a stable part of your life? When there’s little hope of anything resembling a salaried career because you couldn’t afford higher education, even with student loans?

Or when you could kind of afford education, but was it really worth it when the resulting debt will be your lifelong companion because that career your education was supposed to guarantee never materialized?

How does society change when middle-class trappings like houses and cars seem ludicrous, or it’s middle-aged people living with roommates, not just students and 20-somethings? Or when people can barely afford to have pets, so having kids someday is out of the question?

What will we be missing out on if that 40 per cent or 11 per cent never make it? How much potential is being squandered? Was the world where we invented antibiotics and split the atom and launched people to the moon a world where 40 per cent of young people never got past jobs delivering takeout orders?

Well, actually, yes, for several broad swaths of people… But I digress...

Without real jobs, career paths and mentorship, how do young people develop skills and learn organization and leadership and build confidence and ambition? “Changing the world” has very positive branding, but implies building that change within the existing system of which you’re a part. 

When a lot of people are subject to a system they have no say in, change isn’t any less likely, but expect insurgent change, not in-system “progress.”

In areas of the world with large numbers of refugees and displaced persons, we’ve already seen examples of worst-case scenarios playing out. Continuing with or completing education isn’t addressed. It’s extremely difficult to find stable work in places where people have little to no legal standing, lack the required documentation or permits, or even a real address for records.

Lack of purpose can easily become anger and despair, which can make radicalization much more easily achieved. Giving people purpose doesn’t always mean something positive. 

Closer to home it’s less extreme, but many young workers’ experiences could be something out of the Gilded Age, given conditions and exploitations in the gig economy. Mind-boggling disparities in income from the top to the bottom. Underpaying and overworking people. Lack of rights and protections.

I guess we should be grateful that “youth unemployment” now doesn’t refer to children under age 5, like it once did?

Hiring and training people who lack existing skills and experience is expensive and resource-intensive, no question. And the smaller the company, the bigger the risk and investment it is.

But as a general capitalist rule, big companies seem especially inclined to do whatever they can get away with to maximize profits, which tend to benefit a minority. Does this sound like it would be conducive to the kinds of corporate environments that take expensive risks on bright, eager young people?

Many young people also have few sources of power, influence or connections to circumvent these roadblocks, which increases the risk of them remaining trapped as under- or unemployed cogs in the system.

However, what they do have are numbers. There are a lot of young people. More Zoomers than Boomers, in fact. But again, when you’re used to being in survival mode and having little power, it can be hard to realize what potential you and others like you hold.

At the same time, though, older people can’t just be kicked out of their jobs to free up space (assuming the robots haven’t gotten there first). We don’t really have mandatory retirement anymore, but when that and pensions and such were introduced, no one was expected to live that long after retiring.

Now, though, we are living longer and healthier, and not everyone wants to take up woodworking or swing bowling to fill their golden years. Not only that, if you’re going to live 30 years past retirement, you’re going to have to pay for it somehow.

Plenty of older workers are still building and creating and having productive careers. Doesn’t make much sense to just cut that off. And other older people will keep working because, for various reasons, they have little choice. 

Those at one end of the worker spectrum can’t get started, and those at the other end can’t stop. What a world.

In good news, per the Solvable episode, the Harambee Youth Employment Accelerator in South Africa is helping hundreds of thousands of young people with their future prospects. Closer to home, we have organizations like Communitech to help develop technology and entrepreneurship, with plenty of those initiatives helmed by young people.

But fundamentally, while we may be moving toward that robot-driven future, we currently maintain that Dickensian attitude toward work (and capitalism). And it serves fewer and fewer of us. 

People need money to live, whether or not we can get work to earn that money. People are expected to “contribute,” while at the same time being repeatedly told they don’t offer anything anyone needs.

Just sounds like bad business to me.

M-Theory is an opinion column by Melanie Baker. Opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Communitech. Melle can be reached at @melle or me@melle.ca.

Melanie Baker

Melanie Baker has a Mennonite background, a career in tech, and enjoys the unlikely ways these things complement each other. She enjoys writing, working with geeks, building communities, baking and creating fanciful beasts out of socks.