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The problem of youth unemployment

By Fiona Heinrichs - posted Thursday, 5 April 2012

Youth unemployment is a major social problem in Australia. This claim is substantiated by a consideration of a vast literature of articles and reports highlighting these problems. Youth unemployment rose dramatically at the time of the global financial crisis and has continued to rise since. Roy Morgan polls in December 2011 stated that 2.01 million Australians (16.8 percent of the workforce) were unemployed or underemployed 'the highest ever recorded' and that the highest levels were among youth, women and Queenslanders. The young face the highest unemployment rate with 18.5 percent of the 18 – 24 year old workforce unemployed and 17.5 percent of the workforce aged 14 – 17 year olds, unemployed. The female unemployment rate is 9.7 percent and underemployment 9.4 percent compared to the male unemployment rate of 7.7 percent and underemployment 6.2 percent.

In Australia a report on youth unemployment, How Young People are Faring 2009 concluded that: 'no gains in full-time job opportunities have been made despite a 17 year period of uninterrupted economic growth before the global financial crisis. Opportunities have been declining this past year [2009]'. Lucas Walsh, senior research executive for The Foundation of Young Australians who conducted the research said: 'The preparation of teenagers not earning or learning is the highest it has been since the early 1990s. We may be seeing a longer-term trend'.

Bob Hawke as Prime Minister in June 1987, with great fanfare declared that: 'By 1990, no Australian child will live in poverty'. Later Hawke attempted to change his statement, saying that children would not need to live in poverty, but as Freda Briggs has said: 'even that goal remained far from realisation'. Twenty years later Bob Hawke regretted his remarks: 'It was a silly shorthand thing. I should have said what was in the distributed speech'. In 1987 about 580,000 Australian children lived in poverty; in 2007 the figure was around 730,000 children. Australian Bureau of Statistics put the figure of children living in poverty at 605,700 in 2011. This represents a staggering disadvantage to these children, and this disadvantage is often transferred over the years into unemployment and further cycles of poverty.


Poverty is usually viewed in Western societies in a relative, rather than an absolute sense – the absolute sense being defined as an income level below some minimum necessary means to meet basic needs for survival. Absolute poverty is experienced in Africa and parts of Asia and in some Australian Aboriginal communities. Relative poverty refers to a measure of poverty of those earning below the average annual earnings. This captures people living on most Centrelink payments such as Work for the Dole. Recently welfare groups, unions and even businesses have claimed that the Newstart 'dole' allowance should be increased as it is inadequate and puts people in poverty. The Employment Minister, Bill Shorten of the Gillard Federal Labor government has rejected any increase in the dole (worth $243 a week) saying: 'Australia's social security system needs to provide a strong safety net for people who need financial assistance while also acting as an incentive for people to take up paid work'. In other words, unemployed people need to suffer poverty so that they will take up work, any work. That too would be nice if the jobs were available.

The interrelated problems of youth unemployment and poverty are not challenges just for Australian society of course. So-called 'wealthy' western societies as a whole are facing the same challenge. Young people unemployed in the UK has now reached a million. Spain now has over half of all young people unemployed. Young Spaniards are calling themselves 'youth without a future' and have demonstrated in Madrid and other Spanish cities, drawing tens of thousands of protestors. There are further fears of the impact of the Greece debt crisis on wider Europe, with youth unemployment in Greece now at 48 percent. The ousting of Italy's Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi occurred within the context of rising unemployment and debt. Italy's youth unemployment rate has reached the record high of 30.1 percent. More dramatically, Kelvin Thomson, Member for Wills, has said in a speech to Progressives for Immigration Reform (Washington DC) that high unemployment and a widening gap between the rich and poor were some of the factors leading to the 'Arab Spring' protests, which toppled and changed governments. The 2011 England riots fit into this pattern of young people feeling disenfranchised and revolting in anger against leaders in power determining their future. There is considerable debate about whether poverty and the growing gap between rich and poor people was the actual cause of the riots, rather than a more general outpouring of violence by alienated and disaffected youth. The Occupy City and anti-greed protest movements also seems to be a part of this coming revolt of youth.

Once again students have staged walkouts of university lectures – in November 2011 students walked out of Harvard University's Introductory Economics course, taught by Professor Greg Mankiw. Economics, the students argued following criticisms by the left in the 1960s and 1970s was ideological, serving capitalist ideology and not science. Fears of an oncoming second global financial crisis, more severe than the first, will add to this boom in confusion and unrest.

Youth are increasingly falling through the cracks of capitalism. Although the champions of growth tell us that things have never been better and that the future is so bright that we'll all have to wear shades (as the Timbuk3 song put it) the reality test for young people, rather than established elites is different. Thus it is predicted by social researcher Mark McCrindle in the report The Future of Australian Homes in 2111 that the number of people sharing a home could triple with three generations being crammed under one roof.Soaring house prices may be good for capitalists in the real estate industry but the Australian dream of owning a home is beginning to recede into the past. Youth are thus faced with a future of permanently renting, unaffordable prices for first home buyers, foreign investors inflating prices in the housing market and reducing housing availability, specific housing stress on women, smaller blocks of land – or outright homelessness.

The legacy of unending economic growth for growth's sake in Western society will see young people incapable of even paying off the mortgage on a tiny one bedroom apartment. Increasing housing density of apartments means more profits for developers; houses are torn down for high density apartments. Such growth would perhaps be understandable if it were the case that increased materialism made us, including the rich, happier. But with increased GDP, after a point, there are diminishing returns of happiness, and after a point, rising unhappiness. Young people face increasingly intense social problems such as depression, mental illness, suicide, anorexia/bulimia, homicide, alcohol and drug abuse, disappointment and low self-esteem. Across the world suicide is the major cause of death among teenagers and people under the age of 35. The World Health Organisation predicts that depression will be the second biggest killer after heart disease by 2020. A survey by Mission Australia found that the top three issues of concern to young people were school or study problems (37.3 percent), coping with stress (35.4 percent) and body image (33.1 percent). These problems are coming together today to put youth under enormous stress and adversely impact upon our mental health and self-esteem.


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In her latest book GUTTED! Youth Unemployment in Australia (, Fiona suggests some specific proposals to address these ongoing problems.

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About the Author

Fiona’s interests lie in climate change, peak oil and population growth. These issues motivated her to write the book: Sleepwalking to Catastrophe. Tackling the vexed issue of youth unemployment, her latest work is: GUTTED! Youth Unemployment in Australia. Both are available online at

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