Image Credit: Niño Jose Heredia/©Gulf News

One of the most pressing short-term, and indeed long-term global challenges today is youth unemployment.

Its scale is overwhelming — in some countries, more than 50 per cent of young people have no gainful employment. Yet the irony is that, right now, corporations are awash with the financial resources to invest in new talent, if they want to. Adding further to the problem is the volume of educated, job-ready candidates, helped by the relentless advance of learning technologies.

Why is it then, that the highly educated graduates of today are doomed to become tomorrow’s forgotten? As hordes of school and university leavers enter into the global job market, the majority will become entangled in the financially draining, emotionally scarring, labyrinthine battle for employment.

A legacy to remember

Left untreated, youth unemployment is an issue that is set to destabilise fragile economies, become a breeding ground for extremism, and leave a generation permanently scarred. Indeed, it is on track to become one of the worst legacies of the Baby Boomer generation. In the Middle East, the International Labour Organisation (ILO) predicted an increase to 29 per cent unemployment by 2016, a rate which they have labelled “disturbingly high”. For females, this figure is 39 per cent. The economic ramifications of a worldwide recession and the Arab Spring are fuelling youth unemployment figures at an alarmingly high rate in the Middle East and North Africa (Mena) region in particular.

But executives are lacking the confidence to invest in the shadow of recession. Some commentators are asserting that there is currently two trillion dollars on the global balance sheets within the corporations — the money to remedy the problem is there.

Concrete action

Despite vocal concern around the issue of youth unemployment, there is very little in the way of concrete action. It’s clear that those regions with light-touch labour regulations and strong signalling mechanisms to communicate skills in demand are winning. But in many regions, young people are caught in the net of restrictive labour regulations, and weak signals are producing a limited awareness of employable skills.

The recent World Economic Forum in Davos broached the subject of creating a global fund for unemployment, and a more explicit requirement for companies to take on young people. Yet these steps are simply inadequate when confronted with the tidal wave of youth unemployment that is washing over many regions of the world.

It was clear at Davos that one of the emerging challenges was around youth unemployment, while one of the strongest threads of opportunity was the relentless advance of learning technologies. Combined, these two developments could lead to the paradoxical situation of highly educated people with no jobs.

Excitement about virtual learning

While there may not be jobs for every young person, the paradox is that their opportunity to receive free education through the development of online learning is expanding at an exponential rate. It seems that the promise of extensive virtual learning is rapidly being delivered.

At one Davos forum, Professors from MIT and Stanford spoke of their determination to put their classes online for all to engage with, while Bill Gates made it clear that this was something he was personally committed to supporting. There are still issues of certification and verification of skills, but these seem relatively easy to solve.

There has been talk about fundamentally restructuring education for years. In fact, some have seen education as the last bastion of traditional hierarchical practices. Luckily, it seems that the momentum for education for all is finally beginning to build, fuelled by lower-cost computers, greater levels of connectivity, and a willingness from some teachers to make their classes available online for free. As a consequence, there are those who say that, perhaps within the next five years, the education landscape will be profoundly transformed.

That still leaves the problem of what it is these more educated and motivated young people will actually do in their working lives.


The “hollowing out of work” has brought structural changes to many business functions and tasks across the world. Crucially, this hollowing out has seen middle-skill roles replaced by technology or outsourced to the lowest cost provider. What is left is the low paid and unskilled on one end of the spectrum, and the highly skilled and highly paid on the other end of the spectrum. The challenge for young people seeking work is that it is those disappearing middle jobs that have historically been their initial perch as they join a company. When they go the perch disappears, and with it goes the hope of employment, even for the smartest of kids.

Some commentators will argue the case for increased efforts leading youth down the self-employment path. In the UAE, government initiatives to inspire entrepreneurship amongst the local population have been set in motion in the past few years, as in other parts of the world. Yet this is of little comfort to the unemployed of today. Others, like the CEOs and government ministers at Davos, will deliberate on a fund for global unemployment.

At this stage, it seems that the sheer complexity of youth unemployment, not to mention the diversity of stakeholders involved, is rendering the challenge almost impossible to solve. Like global warming, the fear is that this will simply be put into the box marked “too difficult to solve now”.


Lynda Gratton, Professor of Management Research, London Business School