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The politics of youth

By Kellie Tranter - posted Wednesday, 22 February 2012

In 1986 Timbuk3 sang, "the future's so bright I gotta wear shades". They captured the mood of a generation and the song was generally misinterpreted as being optimistic, but in reality it was "taking the piss":

"I gotta job waiting for my graduation. Fifty thou a year will buy a lotta beer. Things are going great, and they're only getting better."

Twenty six years later the song is still super but even the mischaracterised optimism has gone: the International Labour Organisation is now warning of a generation "scarred" by a worsening global youth employment crisis, and Australia is not immune. For many young Australians this isn't "the Lucky Country" and the notion that "We've never had it so good" is far from their reality. Will Australia learn the lessons and heed the warnings from the Arab Spring or the London riots?


According to the International Labour Organisation the world needs 600 million new jobs in the next decade to cope with a rising population and the effects of the financial crisis.

The Global Employment Trends for Youth: 2011 Update describes how the:

"bad luck of the generation entering the labour market in the years of the Great Recession brings not only current discomfort from unemployment, under-employment and the stress of social hazards associated with joblessness and prolonged inactivity, but also longer term consequences in terms of lower future wages and distrust of the political and economic system."

The report notes that this collective frustration among youth has been a contributing factor to protest movements around the world this year, as it becomes increasingly difficult for young people to find anything other than part-time and temporary work.

Youth unemployment in Spain is 51.4 per cent, in Greece 46.6 per cent, in Portugal 30.7 per cent. In November youth unemployment in Britain reached 22 per cent of those aged 16 to 24. In the United States the youth unemployment rate is 23 per cent. The percentages are as high across the Arab world, perhaps even higher. And educated young people who do manage to get work find no comfort in being "last in, first out" in times of economic recession.

What about Australia? When it comes to youth unemployment figures for 15-19-years-olds Professor Bill Mitchell, from the Centre of Full Employment and Equity, suggests that:


"...If you add the 82,000 back into the official unemployed then the 15-19 unemployment rate rises to 22.6 per cent rather than the 14.9 per cent recorded as the official unemployment rate by the ABS. Add that to the underemployment rate (around 13.5 per cent - noting that ABS only publish this for the 15-24-year-olds so we are approximating) - and you get the broad labour force under-utilisation rate for teenagers of around 38 per cent. Read that again – 38 per cent. That is up there with the worst nations in the world - developed or otherwise."

Pierre Laernoes, in a review of the (highly recommended) book 'Time for Outrage' by French diplomat, member of the French Resistance and concentration camp survivor Stéphane Hessel, wrote:

"One oft-debated issue these days is insecurity. At the core of this problem is often youth. We should remember that the violence and criminality arising from youth in socio-economic difficulty, is that the ones who are rejected by society will reject it in turn. Prevention is key. It is a matter of recognising one's dignity.”

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About the Author

Kellie Tranter is a lawyer and human rights activist. You can follow her on Twitter @KellieTranter

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