Europe’s Youth Unemployment Non-Problem

BRUSSELS – European policymakers have decided that they must be seen to be “doing something” about youth unemployment. A special summit of Europe’s heads of state has been called, and a “Youth Employment Initiative,” proposed at the EU Council of Ministers’ meeting in February, aims to “reinforce and accelerate” measures that were recommended in a “Youth Employment Package” in December 2012.

This activism comes mainly in response to the latest alarming figures on youth unemployment in southern Europe, with sky-high rates of joblessness widely regarded as politically unacceptable. But there are several reasons to doubt that youth unemployment is a discrete problem meriting special treatment. Indeed, official youth unemployment statistics are misleading on two counts.

First, the data refer to those from 15 to 24 years old. But this age group consists of two sub-groups with very different characteristics. The “teenagers” (15-19 years old) should mostly still be in school; if not, they are likely to be very low skilled – and thus to have difficulty finding a full-time job even in good times. Fortunately, this group is rather small (and has been declining in size over time).

Unemployment among those aged 20-24 should be more troubling. Members of this cohort who are seeking full-time employment have typically completed upper secondary education, but have decided not to pursue university education (or have completed their university studies early).