Where in the world are young people out of work?


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As International Youth Day approaches next week, I've found myself wondering what are the primary issues affecting young people throughout the world. One topic that seems to be a common thread across regions and income groups is youth unemployment, which remains more than double the rate of unemployment for the general population.

It's well known that youth populations are on the rise in the developing world, particularly. What does this mean for the millions of young people who enter the workforce every year?

Youth unemployment is defined as individuals aged 15-24 who are without work, but are currently available for work and have sought it in the recent past. Below, I analyze data from World Development Indicators. These data come originally from the International Labour Organization (ILO), which produces its own estimates that are harmonized to account for inconsistences in the data source, definition, and methodologies. ILO estimates may differ from official unemployment statistics produced by national statistical offices.  

Asia maintains lowest levels of youth unemployment
Regional levels of youth unemployment have barely changed in the past two decades. South Asia and East Asia and Pacific have maintained the lowest rates, hovering at about 10% for the last 20 years. Meanwhile, the Middle East and North Africa region has had the highest rate of youth unemployment since the 1990s, and clocked in a figure of about 27% in 2012. The biggest increase in the youth unemployment rate has been in the Europe and Central Asia region, where after years of steady decline rates have risen to over 20% since the financial crisis in 2008.

Chart 1

It may appear surpising that the majority of the top ten highest rates of youth unemployment are European countries. Bosnia and Herzegovina, Greece, and Spain all report rates of over 50% in 2012. Greece and Spain's rates are the highest ever reported for each respective country, while Bosnia's—though the highest rate in the world—has actually declined from 63% in 2006.

The lowest reported rates are illustrated in the chart below. Rwanda, Qatar, and Benin all report youth unemployment rates of below 2% for 2012. While Rwanda and Benin's rates have remained steady since the 1990s, Qatar's youth unemployment rate has declined since it was at 5% in 2004. Interestingly, among the ten countries with the lowest unemployment four are from East Asia.

Breaking down youth unemployment by gender
And is there a gender gap in youth unemployment rates? In most regions, actually, there isn't. Only Latin America and the Caribbean and the Middle East and North Africa have significant gaps between male and female unemployment. In Latin America, young women's unemployment rate is 17% compared with 11% for young men's. The MENA region has the largest gender gap by far, where young women have an unemployment rate of 44%-- almost double the rate for young men, which was 23% in 2012.

Chart 2

Why the Middle East and North Africa lag behind
So what is going on with MENA? We might first think of the political instability the region has seen in the past few years, but longer-term analysis shows that the region's current youth unemployment problems are not new. According to the World Bank report, Jobs for Shared Prosperity: Time for Action in the Middle East and North Africa, government policies from decades past play a role: "Until the early 1990s, governments guaranteed public sector employment to their most educated population, driving up education rates but pushing public budgets to the limit." Today, we see the highest rates of unemployment among MENA's highly educated youth.

You can find more information on youth unemployment rates in the World Development Indicators database, as well as more specific labor-related data in the Jobs portal.

Indicators used in this post:

  • Unemployment, youth female (% of female labor force ages 15-24) (modeled ILO estimate) SL.UEM.1524.FE.ZS
  • Unemployment, youth male (% of male labor force ages 15-24) (modeled ILO estimate) SL.UEM.1524.MA.ZS
  • Unemployment, youth total (% of total labor force ages 15-24) (modeled ILO estimate) SL.UEM.1524.ZS
  • Unemployment, total (% of total labor force) (modeled ILO estimate) SL.UEM.TOTL.ZS


Leila Rafei

Development Data Consultant

Join the Conversation

Samarth Vyas
September 01, 2014

Thanks for this interesting article. The interesting thing here was that in Asia Unemployment for Women is less than that of men. Its not just because of less population of women but now companies are hiring more and more women.

September 03, 2014

Hi Samarth, while the data does not account for wage inequality and disparities in the types of jobs by gender, it is interesting to see how East Asia stands apart in this respect. However, if we look at country by country data, many countries in this region have higher female unemployment rates than male rates. Regional aggregate data sometimes mask country trends, because they are weighted by population.

Rachel Blum
September 10, 2014

This article is somewhat misleading as it does not capture the high levels of under-employment, especially in Sub-Saharan Africa. By focusing on the formal definition of "unemployment," it can only be expected that this article would feature the problems faced by MENA and Europe and among highly educated youth. In failing to acknowledge the huge rates of under-employment, this analysis does not capture the reality that most youth face around the world-- that is, the majority of youth in developing countries face severe under-employment that is characterized by low skilled, low-value subsistence activities, largely in agrarian-based and rural economies.

September 25, 2014

Thank you for your feedback, Rachel. I agree, there are limitations to looking only at unemployment data and not underemployment, and other indicators such as underemployment and employment to population ratios would help us get a more complete portrait of the labor market. For the scope of this blog, however, I chose to go with only unemployment, in order to highlight gender gaps and overall regional trends and stick with an indicator with high availability. We’ll keep your feedback in mind for a possible future blog on comprehensive unemployment/underemployment issues.

August 11, 2014

How come North America isn't mentioned on here?

September 03, 2014

Aggregates for total youth unemployment in the developed North American countries (Bermuda, Canada, and USA excluding Mexico)was 16% in 2012. You can find individual and aggregate numbers from the World Development Indicators database at http://databank.worldbank.org/data/views/variableSelection/selectvariab…. We hope this helps.

Attorneys Plural
August 24, 2014

I do not know if it's just me or if everybody else encountering problems with your blog.
It looks like some of the text within your content are running off
the screen. Can someone else please provide feedback and let me know if this
is happening to them as well? This may be a problem with
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Thank you

September 03, 2014

Sorry to hear about the problem with the site. This is likely a browser issue. It's working in Chrome, IE9, and Firefox.

paul dornan
August 08, 2014

Very interesting blog Leila thanks. How much do you think those regional differences would be affected if there were data on underemployment rather than unemployment?

August 14, 2014

Hi Paul, I’m glad you enjoyed the blog. We have indicators on time-related underemployment in the Gender Data Portal, however these indicators are not disaggregated by age group. Regional data is also sparse for these indicators, unfortunately. But you are right—youth underemployment would be an interesting point of comparison to unemployment data. The ILO has a summary of how they define this type data on their website: http://www.ilo.org/global/statistics-and-databases/statistics-overview-….