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The Mirage of Youth Unemployment

PARIS – Economists worldwide need better ways to measure economic activity. Relying on GDP growth rates to assess economic health, almost all of them missed the warning signs of the 2008 financial crisis, including an $8 trillion real-estate bubble in the United States, as well as property bubbles in Spain, Ireland, and the United Kingdom. Together with households, financial institutions, investors, and governments, economists were swept up in the financial euphoria that led to excessive risk-taking and severe over-leveraging of banks and households. Even the eurozone’s macroeconomic imbalances largely went unnoticed.

Unemployment estimates also are surprisingly misleading – a serious problem, considering that, together with GDP indicators, unemployment drives so much economic-policy debate. Outrageously high youth unemployment – supposedly near 50% in Spain and Greece, and more than 20% in the eurozone as a whole – makes headlines daily. But these numbers result from flawed methodology, making the situation appear far worse than it is.

The problem stems from how unemployment is measured: The adult unemployment rate is calculated by dividing the number of unemployed individuals by all individuals in the labor force. So if the labor force comprises 200 workers, and 20 are unemployed, the unemployment rate is 10%.

But the millions of young people who attend university or vocational training programs are not considered part of the labor force, because they are neither working nor looking for a job. In calculating youth unemployment, therefore, the same number of unemployed individuals is divided by a much smaller number, to reflect the smaller labor force, which makes the unemployment rate look a lot higher.