Political leaders of the world beware! Today, irrespective of your type of government, the unemployed and underemployed youth in your countries are a disruptive force that may dishevel your robe of legitimacy and grip on your power. These are the frustrated young men and women, from school dropouts to college graduates, who are being ignored by their governments. For many of them, access is blocked to the full rights of citizenship and economic mobility.

Who are these youth? According to the International Labor Organization (ILO), an agency of the United Nations, some 75.1 million young people around the world were looking for jobs in 2010, and the number is growing. Instead of getting an early start in life, according to the ILO report, these youth are ‘three times more likely to be unemployed than adults’. The report predicts a ‘scarred generation of young workers facing a dangerous mix of high unemployment, increased inactivity, and menial work in developed countries, as well as persistently high working poverty in the developing world.’ 

In the underdeveloped economies of the world, the situation is especially dire. Nearly 80 per cent of unemployed people in those countries are youth between the ages of 15 and 24, of whom a third have only ten years of schooling or less. Moreover, the ratio of unemployed youth to unemployed adults in these nations is growing. For example, in Thailand at present, there are 6.1 unemployed youth for every unemployed adult. In Indonesia, that ratio is 5.6 to 1; and in the Philippines, the ratio is 3.4 to 1. The situation is even worse for girls than it is for boys. The ILO report concludes that ‘being young and female continues to pose a double challenge for the current generation of young women looking to find decent jobs’.

The noted social scientist Robert Solow considers labour market as a ‘social institution’, which he argues is more realistic because work and the loss of it should be far removed from the ‘textbook’ measures and models. Sociologists have found that the social origin of unemployed workers is heavily tilted toward minorities, the rural poor, and women. In a study commissioned by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), the authors found that ‘unemployment begets unemployment’, by what sociologist Mira Komorovsky called the ‘multiplier effect’. In other words, attitudes toward work are shaped by joblessness over months and years, breeding hopelessness over time. 

In the West, minority youth is most alienated. They lack analytical skills to meet the demands of post-industrial societies. This situation is particularly noticeable among the new immigrants in the advanced economies of the West. The youth unemployment data sets from the Netherlands illustrate our point. Joblessness increased for those who immigrated from Turkey (+13 %), Morocco (+51%), Surinam (+4%) and the Antilles (+75%).

In the United States, according to the Bureau of Labour Statistics that in January 2016 although the unemployment rate was 4.9 per cent, African-American population was double that of the white. Moreover, this situation has remained the same for the past six decades. Much of the ethnic division can be attributed to the amount of education. While overall jobless rate in 2014 was 5 per cent, for those who did not complete high school diploma, the unemployment rate was 9 per cent.           

As long ago as 1895, the French sociologist Gustav Le Bon noted that ‘collective’ protests begin with a small, amorphous, disenchanted youth group that ventures beyond reasonable social norms. Often, these nascent movements sprout from unemployed masses who make up the rules of the game as they go along. However, at some point, a demagogue emerges who coalesces these aimless youth into a critical mass. That&’s when the discontent becomes explosive.

Sociologists are hesitant to draw global generalizations about the specific factors that contribute to the rise of protest movements, since nations and cultures are different. Nevertheless, they have found a common theme in the way self-identity becomes submerged in collective movements. Disaffected youth are the most vulnerable idealists to be manipulated by leaders who invoke the mantra of change, or even revolution. 

Consider the case of Boko Haram, whose name roughly translates from Hausa to ‘Western education is a sin’. This terrorist organization is a renegade group of armed men (and even some women), who are routinely recruiting disaffected youth from Nigeria and the bordering countries of Benin, Chad, and Niger. The Global Terrorist Index estimated that Boko Haram, which was initially organized by a charismatic cleric, killed 7,000 innocent people in 2014 alone. Tunisia is another tinderbox. It has been estimated that more than 50 per cent of college graduates in Tunisia are out of work. One could argue that the solution to terrorism is jobs. In fact, Haouas, Sayre, and Yagoubi (2012) have attributed the lack of job creation in Tunisia to inefficient educational planners who ignore the sizeable mismatch between productive vocations and market demands.

In India, according to the census of 2011, more than a quarter of the nation&’s youth, identified as individuals between the ages of 15 and 29, are perennially unemployed. There are two sharp edges to their woes. First, since labour is cheap, the formal and informal business sectors, especially the small mom-and-pop stores, survive by paying minimum wages that do not cover their workers’ living expenses. Second, the educational system favors wage manipulation, if not outright stagnation, by producing graduates who lack needed skills. In fact, the unemployment graph looks like an inverted pyramid, with unemployment higher for college graduates than for illiterate youth.

As long ago as 1986, Lakshman drew an abysmal profile of the human cost of underemployment and the loss of self-identity in India. More recently in 2006, Pal has noted that India&’s unemployed youth must be considered a ‘distinct’ social category, whose anger and frustration against the government and the system of education are the seeds of protest movements. For these marginal classes, democracy is a pure fiction. They would agree with Wittgenstein (in Tractus 1922) that in order for ‘ideal language’ to have pragmatic teeth it must be proportionate to the ‘real’ life.  

In modern-day India, college and university campuses are political hothouses of discontent. The vestigial youth parties, once encouraged by independence from Britain movements, have hit an ideological pothole. If the state party bosses agree that socioeconomic mobility for all youth is a constitutional obligation, the first and most pragmatic way to resolve both intra- and inter-party chaos on campuses is to agree, however voluntarily, to cease all political activity there. By all account, this suggestion is not Pollyannaish; instead, it must be considered by the political leaders as an urgent appeal to commit youth&’s crumbling future to the common good of all. That will free educators to prepare their students to see the world through clear lenses of critical thinking and logical analysis. Academics, likewise, must avoid rehashing the arcane rhetoric which argues that the Indian people are the trolls of postcolonial elites. India needs only to claim that customs, beliefs, and traditions can complement civic motives while meeting manpower targets for the good of the country. 

Genuine education means that youths are given full moral rights of citizenship. Then the air of openness and inclusiveness will fill the hearts and minds of all. Long ago, Buddha had it right: Bahujana sukhaya, bahujana hitaya, ‘For the happiness of the many, for the welfare of the many.’

The writer is an emeritus professor of sociology.