U.N. warns of virus impact on swelling youth unemployment

GENEVA, Switzerland – Measures to tackle the deadly coronavirus could take a particularly harsh toll on young people's access to work, at a time when youth unemployment is already rising, the United Nations (UN) warned Monday, March 9.

The UN labor agency cautioned that young people risked being disproportionately affected by a looming global economic slowdown brought on by efforts to rein in COVID-19.

The outbreak has sent stock markets crashing and sparked a flurry of warnings that economies and businesses are heading for a slump. (READ: Coronavirus seen to make Philippines miss 2020 GDP growth target)

"Young people tend to be more affected by these crises than other age groups, so that is why we very much worry about impact of the COVID-19," Sangheon Lee, head of the employment policy department of the International Labour Organization (ILO), told reporters in Geneva.

He pointed out that young people tend to hold more temporary, flexible, and unstable jobs, often in the services sector, which has been hard-hit by a steep drop in consumer demand as people shun public places.

"If the consumption squeeze related to COVID-19 continues in coming months, then we have to expect severe consequences for young people in terms of job opportunities," he said.

This is bad news as young people are already struggling to access good employment opportunities.

Warranted 'anxiety'

In a fresh report, the UN's labor agency estimated that the global youth unemployment rate had swelled over the past 20 years to a record 13.6% last year.

But more concerning, is that more than one-fifth of the world's 15- to 24-year-olds are neither employed nor in school or work training, the ILO said.

"Too many young people around the world are becoming detached from education and the labor market, which can damage their long-term prospects, as well as ultimately undermine the social and economic development of their countries," Lee said.

The problem is particularly dire for young women, who make up two-thirds of those in the so-called NEET category (not in employment, education, or training), according to the report.

And despite a global commitment to ensure no young people find themselves in such a limbo by 2030, the situation is getting worse.

In 2016, 259 million young people were in the NEET category, but the ILO said it expects that number to swell to 273 million by next year.

In percentage terms, the trend is also upwards, with 22.4% of all 15 to 24-year-olds in the NEET category last year, compared with 21.7% in 2015, the ILO report found.

Globally, young people are 3 times more likely than adults over the age of 25 to be unemployed, largely due to "major structural barriers preventing young people from entering the labor market," the report found.

One major issue facing young people is that education and job training programs have been slow to keep up with developments in the labor market, and are continuing to train students for professions at risk of disappearing due to automation and other technological advances.

"We need significant system reform in education and training," Lee said.

Paradoxically, while young people tend to be the most enthusiastic adopters of new technologies, they are also the ones most worried about seeing jobs swallowed up by robots and artificial intelligence, the report found.

"Their anxiety may well be warranted," Lee acknowledged, pointing out that "the risk of automation is highest in jobs held by young people in both advanced and developing countries." – Rappler.com