The youth unemployment myth

Young people today just can’t find jobs, we’re told. But the data reveals a much different story

Unemployed young people as they stand in line outside a job centre in central London during a photocall for the Battlefront Campaign, raising awareness of the large number of young people who are currently unemployed in the UK in 2011.

(Leon Neal/AFP/Getty)

Few notions of the modern economy get more attention than the struggles of young Canadians in the job market. It’s become a sacred truth that today’s youth have it tougher than any time in memory when it comes to finding and keeping a job.

Yet there’s plenty of evidence to suggest the situation is hardly that dire. When TD Economics recently took a closer look at youth unemployment, it found no sign of any pressing crisis. Of course, such a finding was promptly ignored by the media, along with everyone else, because it didn’t fit the accepted hardship narrative. “Dog Bites Man” isn’t news and neither is “Youth Finds Job.”

It’s true the unemployment rate for the 15 to 24 age group is now a hefty 13.3%, or double the overall Canadian rate of 6.6%. Yet the TD Economics report points out that it is actually below the 14.2% long-run average for youth, going back nearly four decades. And while the youth unemployment rate was lower prior to the 2008 recession, the same holds true for every group in the labour market. Youth employment figures generally track the business cycle, although the situation was actually far more dire for young job seekers during the recessions of the 1980s and 1990s.

Of course, young people are due a certain amount of sympathy for the perennial difficulties involved in getting one’s foot in the door of the job market—it’s always been hard work finding that first full-time position. But nothing suggests the situation is getting worse for today’s young job applicants. By most measures, it’s getting better.

When the House of Commons Standing Committee on Finance dutifully looked into youth unemployment last summer, it heard familiar tales of outrage and woe from university student groups and organized labour fretting about student debt, precarious work and temporary foreign workers. Yet the data doesn’t support all this political hand-wringing. Asked if it has become tougher for young people to find stable and secure employment today, economist Tammy Schirle of Wilfrid Laurier University replied, “I have only found evidence that contradicts this.” Compared to older workers, she noted, today’s young people tend to stay unemployed for much shorter periods, and their retention rates are on the rise.

Unpacking the numbers further, TD Economics finds that older youth—those between 20 and 24—are doing quite well establishing themselves in the job market. The biggest problem appears to lie with the youngest cohort. “A disproportionate share of the high youth unemployment rate is concentrated among youth aged 15 to 16,” the report observes. These kids, who are not in school, faced an unemployment rate of nearly 30% immediately following the Great Recession, pushing up the average across the entire youth category.

It’s also the case that young men are doing noticeably poorer than young women in the job market—largely because of a growing gender gap in post-secondary schooling. In addition to getting more education, women also tend to find work in the more reliably stable service sector, while men still congregate in highly cyclical goods-producing industries.

In total, the evidence on youth unemployment suggests education remains the best insurance against being jobless. It’s not noisy university graduates belly­aching about debt loads and unpaid internships that we need to worry about—it’s male high school dropouts.

All the complaining from college campuses says more about inflated expectations than limited job prospects, observes Schirle. “Anecdotally, it seems the majority of my students expect to complete their undergraduate degree and immediately find a secure job with a salary that would place them in the top 5% to 10% of Canadian earners,” she says. “No doubt it takes some time for their expectations to adjust after leaving school.”

While we wait for those expectations to catch up with reality, we ought to focus our energies on convincing teenage boys to stay in school. And take up nursing.


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8 comments on “The youth unemployment myth

  1. I would agree in this article that the biggest issue facing society will be how to get this majority of young men, who cannot receive an education by the current public education system, jobs.

  2. The problem is not youth unemployment, it’s youth under-employment.

    Check out Figure 3 and 4 in a new underemployment report from the Ontario Society of Professional Engineers at:

    About 50% of graduates in many university programs work in jobs that do not even require a university degree. The situation has been getting worse for many years. For engineering graduates check out Figure 2 in the report. Underemployment is much worse now than 15 years ago.

    Our free market policies are not working as well as we had hoped. We are creating jobs but many are low skilled and low paid jobs that do not use the training received in those expensive university degrees.

  3. I have to disagree with your article. The study fail to look into the underemployment issue and only focus on the unemployed youths. Although I did know quite a handful of new graduates who are unemployed they soon leave that for jobs that do not require any degrees. Quite a few started to work at survival jobs because they have crippling debt and must pay the bills somehow and the solution is usually a waitress job or retail. Also, you are stating that because youth unemployment decreased by 1% it is something to rejoice. No, It’s not. The world especially Canada should learn something from Germany.

  4. “Or do we assume that work can be sttumlaiing, fun, energizing, inspiring, motivating and meaningful?”Yes it can be. It would be nice if it was always thus, however…”I’ve tried both – and considering how huge the gap between the two is for me, I’ve decided that I will never again settle for anything less than work that makes me happy”…for most of us, the primary function of work is that it should generate sufficient money to support our families and enable us to do this things we truly enjoy. Enjoying work is important but it isn’t the primary motivation for most people and not everyone is able to make a job they enjoy doing pay or to have the flexibility to alter their present job. Would you rather see your family starve than do a job which doesn’t make you happy? What about the many jobs in the world that are, and will always be, boring, unpleasant, repetitive, dangerous and thoroughly unlovable yet are vital and need someone to do them? Should they remain because noone will *love* doing them? Blithely telling everyone to love their job can be a pretty smug, glib statement and is largely the preserve of those of us with sufficient education or financial freedom to have those sort of choices available to them. Here endeth the rant… 😉

  5. It’s true that education remains the best insurance against being jobless. Majority of the youth lack the market specific skills that are required in the corporate world. They are vulnerable during these harsh economic times where the employment terms may be very unfavorable to them compared to the more experienced employees. At Kenyan Youth Board, we strive to impact the opportunities of job creation to the youth by equipping the youth with skills that will make them confident and competent enough to take part in the growth and development of the country’s economy having acquired the market specific skills. we do offer industrial attachment and job opportunities to them by creating a database of available job opportunities in Kenya and all over the world. Feel free to visit out website for more about the products and services that we offer

  6. I take little offence to the article. What I would like to see, and what the article begins to discuss, is a more detailed examination of the age breakdown within the “youth” cohort, as well as socio-economic background. I agree, university educated youth may struggle briefly but will find employment. It is the individuals already within poverty who struggle the most. And they become the long-term unemployed, regardless of age.