Unemployment among Latin America youths fuels 'lost generation'

A lost generation is emerging as unemployment soars among Latin America youths. Nearly 20 percent are neither studying nor looking for jobs.

Sara Miller Llana/The Christian Science Monitor
Victor Rodriguez wants to be a graphic designer, but sees no opportunities for that now amid soaring unemployment among Latin America youths. He break dances at red lights for cash.

Even in the best of times, securing one’s first job can be quite the feat. But in Latin America these days, the task is gargantuan.

The financial crisis that sank some of the world’s biggest banks and left record numbers of people jobless has had a particularly harsh effect on young workers worldwide. And although much of Latin America is recovering faster than elsewhere, the International Labor Organization (ILO) estimates that 600,000 young people in the region have been left unemployed by the crisis – putting a strain on governments and reversing gains made from 2003 to 2008.

Even more worrisome, nearly 20 percent of the youths in the region are neither studying nor looking for jobs, threatening to become a “lost generation,” says the ILO.

“The challenges for the countries are immense. We are talking about a generation of young people who not only mark the future but the present with high levels of inactivity,” says Guillermo Dema, an ILO specialist in youth unemployment for Latin America and the Caribbean. “They are frustrated, they cannot get married or start their own families. It is generating a serious problem.”

Unemployment among young workers is typically about two to three times that of adults. In 2008, of 18 countries in Latin America where data was collected, 13.4 percent of young people were unemployed compared with 4.5 percent of adults.

But in those countries with preliminary data from 2009 (eight countries in Latin America), youth unemployment shot up to 18.5 percent. The US youth unemployment rate also hit 18.5 percent in July. But the gap between youth and adult unemployment rates is bigger in Latin America than it is in the US, where adult joblessness was 9.7 percent in January.

“Fewer young people were looking for jobs,” says Jurgen Weller, an economist at the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) in Santiago, Chile. “Adults continued looking for jobs.… When [youths] perceive there are no jobs, they just don’t look for one.”

Losing hope

That is the case with Victor Rodriguez, a 23-year-old whose principal source of income today comes from break dancing in front of cars stopped at red lights. He left school at age 16 and worked as a gardener for several years, he explains on a recent day at a park in the Tlalpan section of Mexico City, where he practices his moves.

“I’d like to go back to school, maybe be a graphic designer,” he says. But for now, he does not see how to move forward and plans to keep dancing for a living, he says.

Gonzalo Saravi, an anthropologist who studies youths at the Center for Research and Superior Studies in Social Anthropology in Mexico City, says that crises can produce a positive phenomenon. For instance, he says, some youths – with no perceived opportunities on the horizon – stay in school longer.

But crises also produce a countertrend: Youths drop out of institutions altogether. These youths don’t just have low career expectations: Mr. Saravi says that “they’ve lost their expectations.”

Mexico’s US-dependent economy – the hardest hit in Latin America – contracted by about 6.5 percent in 2009, and the ranks of unemployed youths represent a grave concern. Many may end up working for criminal organizations battling one another in the country’s brutal drug war. Others may migrate illegally to the United States.

Juan de Dios Castro, a top education official in Mexico who heads the national adult education program, says that 700,000 young people dropped out of school last year.

Vicious cycle

Countries across the region are taking steps to address the situation.

Given the high number of drop-outs Mexico was seeing, Mr. Castro says his entity began coordinating with various state education departments a year ago to target recent dropouts and woo them back into the system. Once youths leave the education system, it can affect the rest of their lives. “It’s a vicious cycle,” he says. Many end up in low-paid informal jobs, like Mr. Rodriguez, the break dancer.

Chile has offered subsidies to low-wage workers ages 18 to 24, while Colombia’s National Learning center announced plans to provide 250,000 new spots for unemployed, poor youths between the ages of 16 and 26. Many countries in Central America have offered scholarships to young people. In Nicaragua, the government seeks to open up 1,000 new positions through pacts with the business community.

Challenges remain. According to a report released in December by the United Nations Development Program on youths and employment in the Southern Cone, Ar­gen­tina, Brazil, and Uru­guay report that those under age 30 make up 60 percent of the unemployed. In Paraguay, it’s 70 percent.

Luis Ramirez, who was break dan­cing with Rodriguez in Tlalpan, will be graduating this year with a law degree from one of Mexico’s most exclusive universities. He says he expects to find a job, but not doing what he wants to do.

“I’d say 90 percent of the class last year did not get what they wanted,” he says.

A sharp rise in youth unemployment could create a frustrated 'lost generation' of young adults who give up on career aspirations and turn to crime or join the ranks of illegal immigrants in the United States.

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