The Global Youth Bulge: Challenge and Opportunity



A young person's search for the right job has never been easy. However, according to the International Labor Organization, the difficulty for young people to secure decent employment is at a high.

This unfortunate reality is a global challenge, and it directly affects American interests.  Young Americans face some of the same challenges as their peers in other countries, and this is often compounded by the burden of extraordinary college debt.

This unaddressed "youth bulge" across the developing world challenges the political stability of fragile and strategically important countries, thus endangering global security and economic growth.

We currently have the largest youth generation in human history; about half the people on earth are under 30 years old. Tens of millions of them are entering the global workforce each year without the most basic skills-hard or soft-to succeed.  (1)  Especially in low-income countries, education systems remain stuck in colonial times, while employers seek 21st century adaptability and self-direction in workers. According to a 2015 survey by Manpower, 38 percent of employers worldwide cannot find the right workers to fill positions.

Young women in the Middle East and North Africa have the hardest time finding employment as employers and families remain biased against women working outside of the home. Female youth unemployment is 20-22 percent higher than male youth unemployment in countries across this region (ILO, 2015).

What lacks is the will of international donors and governments to allocate the resources to deliver these services to young people. Recent research by the Center for Strategic and International Studies and the International Youth Foundation revealed that in 2014, global donors allocated only $1 per young person in developing countries to youth economic opportunity programs. That's a pittance.

Where are the jobs?

Some of the best sources for decent work for young people in developing countries are in several high-growth sectors: transportation, infrastructure and construction, agricultural processing, and services such as hospitality and tourism. All of these areas can employ young people who bring their competencies up to a high-school equivalent level and gain the soft workplace skills to be good employees. In the Manpower survey, employers in these categories reported the most difficulty with recruitment.

The imperative for youth economic opportunity almost goes without saying. More people in good jobs makes economies more equitable and stable. Decent and dignified work provides purpose, belonging, and self-esteem. Having an occupation leaves less time for anti-social activities. Income produces consumers that further stimulate the economy, as well as tax revenue for governments.

Anyone concerned about inclusive global economic growth needs to be concerned with young people's livelihoods. We should push for much more investment in this area as we push for expanded global trade because the two are linked. At the most basic level, who will build the infrastructure and factories to move goods? Who will provide the supporting services? Who will create the stability that attracts foreign investors? The answer is right in front of us: youth will.


The fixes to this challenge are not easy or simple, but they are there. We know that the vast majority of youth want to succeed, and with the right tools they can. Technical training, workplace readiness skills, access to finance and know-how to startup businesses, and protection from exploitation is a recipe that works.

This will all require continued American engagement with the world, through foreign assistance, the resources and expertise of civil society organizations, and international trade.

(1)   See, for example: