Global approach to youth employment

This paper discusses the theoretical potential, current global opportunities and broad strategies for creation of 500 million new jobs within a decade. A theoretical understanding of employment generation as one dimension of the social development process challenges common misconceptions and supports the view that full employment is an achievable goal for the international community. A progressive expansion of human needs that generate additional employment opportunities coupled with accelerated growth in the productivity of material and non-material resources provide the essential foundation for full employment. Current international trends in demographics, technology and social organization are opening up opportunities that strongly favor accomplishment of this goal. The Summit will need to project a broad range of strategies to meet the needs of different nations, fields of activity and concerned organizations. Strategies should tap the entire gamut of employment opportunities from agri-business to information technology-enabled services, focusing on activities at the next higher phase of development appropriate to each geographic region and stratum of society. These strategies will achieve maximum results when employment is recognized as the economic equivalent of the right to vote in political democracy and it is guaranteed by all nations as a fundamental human right.

The Problem

According to estimates by the International Labor Organization, the world labor force currently numbers approximately 3 billion people, out of which 23 to 30% are underemployed and about 140 million are fully unemployed. The severity and consistently high levels of youth unemployment worldwide are of special concern. The ILO estimates that there are about 60 million young people between the ages of 15 and 24 who are presently in search of work but cannot find it.

Viewing youth employment in a wider context

At the outset, the approach to youth employment needs to be qualified in two ways:

Youth employment is a subset of total employment

While the focus of the YES initiative is on youth employment, this challenge has to be viewed as a subset of the wider issue of providing employment opportunities for all who seek them. Although strategies may target specific sections of the population, the process of employment generation is essentially the same for all ages and levels of the population. In reality it is difficult to segregate the problem of youth employment from that of employment in general, since labor markets do not recognize or respect any such distinctions. Although the Summit should naturally emphasize strategies that directly benefit youth employment, it is important to keep in mind that directly or indirectly employment generation for people at any level of the society and in any age group will open up greater opportunities for youth employment. Therefore, the summit should examine the issue of employment generation in general and then narrow down its focus to policies and strategies concentrating on the young.

Employment is no longer a national issue

The process of globalization is rapidly converting employment from a national into a global issue as well as a global opportunity. The positive contribution to the world economy of strong US economic growth, the negative impact of the East Asian financial crisis, and widespread public concern regarding the impact of World Trade Organization agreements are expressions of this fact. Demographic trends and technological developments in the industrialized world will generate new types of employment opportunities for developing countries, stimulating further growth of international migration to developed countries, remittances from workers overseas to developing countries, and out-locating service jobs made possible by the Internet. The opportunity to create 500 million jobs for youth in the coming decade is a global opportunity and will require a global perspective. Action may be primarily focused at the national level, but understanding must encompass changes taking place around the whole world.

Theoretical framework for full employment


What are the factors that contribute to the process of employment generation in society? What is the scope for magnifying or accelerating that process? What are the inherent limits that determine its maximum speed and level of accomplishment? What is the impact of technological development on the creation and destruction of employment opportunities? How do demographic factors influence employment? These and many similar questions lie at the root of the employment issue and need to be answered before any specific set of policy guidelines can be convincingly projected. The Summit needs to present a conceptual framework that positions the process of employment generation as a natural expression of social development and to identify the factors and forces that can hasten this process.

In order to provide a strong theoretical basis for practical action, this framework will need to challenge several traditional views of employment. The notion that technological development and industrialization constitute obstacles to creating sufficient jobs is contrary to fact but still widely accepted in theory. The idea that trade between industrialized and developing countries places inevitable limits on job creation among the wealthier nations of the world needs also to be challenged. So too, the framework must challenge the view that the number of jobs created by any society is a rigid function of fixed economic laws and that any effort to modify the outcome can only be done by creating inherent economic imbalances. It needs also to identify the policy instruments available for modifying or enhancing the process of employment generation.

Employment is a direct function of social values and policies

The potential for increasing employment opportunities through innovative policy measures is dramatically illustrated by the accomplishments of the Netherlands during the past decade. Government, employers' organizations and trade unions have worked together to find creative ways to reduce unemployment. The effort included a review of existing policies to identify those that could be modified to promote employment. One agreement enabled the unions and employers to implement a policy of wage restraint as a trade-off for a progressive reduction in working hours. Another agreement negotiated between the unions, the employers and the government provided for an exchange of wage restraint against a decrease in taxes and social contributions. Close to a hundred instructions, policy statements and reports have been issued in follow-up to these agreements.

The result has been widely acclaimed as the "Dutch miracle". Throughout the 1990s, this cooperative effort enabled the country to increase economic growth and employment more rapidly than its European neighbors. A close examination of government policies led to the identification of policy changes that increased worker flexibility and encouraged part-time employment. As a result of these initiatives, the percentage of people working part-time has risen from 22% to 37% in ten years. Two thirds of the women and 15% of the men are now working part-time. Overall, the unemployment rate in the Netherlands has declined from 10% in 1994 to less than 4% in early 2000, compared to unemployment rates of 10% or higher in neighboring countries. The Dutch strategy has been equally successful in dealing with the problem of youth unemployment. In 1997, the unemployment rate among those in the 15-24 year age group was 28% in France compared to only 9.7% in the Netherlands[1].

In these and other ways, the Summit needs to make evident that options do exist to create employment opportunities for everyone. The essential requirement is social commitment and determination.

Limits to employment generation

A solution to the current problem of unemployment can be arrived at by viewing employment as a natural function of social development. The faster and further a society develops, the greater its capacity to generate employment opportunities for its members. Development occurs when society possesses unutilized resources that are harnessed to fulfill unmet social needs.

Economics was founded on the implicit, Newtonian-like assumptions that society consists of a limited number of human needs and a limited capacity, i.e. limited resources, to produce goods and services to fill those needs. There is now ample evidence to prove that neither of these assumptions is valid. Neither human needs nor human resources are finite.

Had there truly been limits to the capacity of society to generate new needs, a number of developed nations should by now have exhibited symptoms of satiety and stagnation. The opposite seems to be closer to the truth. Human needs exist in an ascending hierarchy that includes physical, vital or social, mental and spiritual dimensions. Humanity exhibits an inexhaustible appetite for physical security and comfort; social relationship and enjoyment; invention, acquisition of knowledge and creativity; and the quest for the ultimate truths and meaning of life and existence. Each successive level of social accomplishment leads to the emergence of new and higher needs and the creation of new employment opportunities.

While physical needs may be limited in their quantity, they are not subject to any limits to qualitative expansion. The number of calories consumed by a healthy individual is certainly subject to narrow limits, but the quality and variety of foods consumed is capable of unlimited variation. The same is true of other basic physical needs such as for housing, clothing, transportation, communication, etc. Thus, the prosperity of modern societies has multiplied rather than reduced the demand for physical products and services.

Social needs include the desire for human relationship, interaction, recreation, and enjoyment. In the measure basic physical needs are met, increasing human energy is channeled into the pursuit of social forms of fulfillment. Travel, tourism, sporting events, amusement, and entertainment are fields that are presently undergoing rapid expansion in most countries. The fulfillment of mental needs has only recently begun to constitute a major force for economic expansion. Educational products and services are proliferating at all levels of society in both developing and developed nations. Demand for information, news, facts, printed materials, scientific research, and technological innovation are growing exponentially. Thus, it is evident that there is no inherent limit to the capacity of society to spawn new needs that it seeks to fulfill and new employment opportunities to fill them.

Limits to productive potential

Human needs may not be limited, but common sense tells us that the capacity of society to meet those needs is subject to severe limitations. Past experience and present constraints support the view that human productive capacity depends on the availability of resources and that the limited availability of resources constitute real limits to human development and employment generation.

An impartial assessment will make it evident that the constraints society faces today are lesser rather than greater than they have been in the past. Human development is a process of expanding rather than exhausting the potentials of a finite physical and social environment. Development continuously increases the range of human potential and pushes the ceiling of accomplishment ever higher above its present level.

Since the time of Malthus, the rapid expansion of human population, the spread of industrialization and urbanization have been cited as compelling proof of the limits to growth. But equally compelling facts can be cited that contradict this view. Over the past two centuries world population has grown more than seven-fold, yet living standards in most parts of the world have soared by an even greater multiple during this period. During the 20th Century world GDP at constant prices increased 19-fold, while world population grew nearly 4-fold. This has resulted in a near 5-fold growth of global per capita GDP since 1900. Between 1950 and 1990, average, global per capita income tripled, in spite of unprecedented population growth, and average real per capita consumption in developing countries doubled.

Historically, population growth has acted as a powerful stimulus to economic development. A graphic representation of the two shows that they have advanced according to an almost one-to-one progression. Short-term, rapid expansion of population has certainly placed a heavy burden on existing productive capacities and employment opportunities in many countries. But, as the rates of population growth decline and rates of development increase, these imbalances can be rectified.

Unutilized social resources

The more serious issue is whether the earth's limited resources can support high levels of economic development for a global population that may reach nine billion before it levels off. Resources are inputs or factors for carrying out an activity effectively. They are of several types. Land, water, coal, oil, minerals, and power are physical resources. The social resources consist of the society's capacity to manage and direct complex systems and activities. Knowledge, information, technology and the capacity to organize are mental resources. The energy, skills and capacities of people are human resource.

Economics is very much concerned with the scarcity of resources. But when viewed from a wider perspective, it can be seen that while the quantity of some physical resources may be inherently limited, the notion of scarcity does not really apply to social, mental and human resources. Any of these non-physical resources may be limited in their immediate availability, but none are subject to inherent or permanent limits. Organizational capabilities can be increased over time. The horizons of knowledge, information and technology are continuously expanding. The human resource becomes progressively more capable and productive.

As a society develops to higher levels, non-material resources play an increasingly important role as factors of production. This principle is embodied in the concept of the Information Age, an era in which access to information has become a valuable input and precious resource for improving the quality of decisions and the productivity of activities. One characteristic of information is that it is not consumed by being distributed or utilized, thus it is inexhaustible. Access to information now enables investors to move financial resources around the world instantaneously in search of higher returns. The increasing contribution of higher, non-material resources helps explain how many societies continue to expand productivity on a limited physical resource base.

Increasing the input of higher resources also makes it possible to more efficiently utilize the available material resources. Technological resources have made it possible since 1980 to increase the world's proven and economically accessible oil reserves by 50%, while reducing the finding cost by nearly 75%. At the same time technology has reduced the materials and energy input required for a wide range of products. Land and water productivity are very low in many developing countries. Studies indicate that the earth's land resources are capable of producing sufficient food to support a population many times the current size. Cotton grown under irrigated conditions in India on average consumes 30 times as much water and five times as much land per unit of cotton produced than is required by leading cotton growers in California using the latest technology for crop management. Dutch agricultural scientists have recently demonstrated that it actually requires only 1.4 liters of water to grow a kilogram of vegetables, compared to more than 1000 liters commonly utilized by traditional cultivation practices. In a similar manner, organizational resources can increase the speed and efficiency with which every productive activity is carried out, thereby reducing costs and making them more affordable to the masses.

Every society has a vast reservoir of unutilized and underutilized resources in terms of knowledge, skill, technology, information, organization, management expertise, money and cultural values that can be harnessed to meet those needs. Indian citizens currently invest more than $6 billion of precious foreign exchange reserves annually to import gold as a form of private savings. The country now holds more than $200 billion in the form of gold that could be much more productively invested in activities that accelerate economic growth and employment. Instead of concerning itself with how to attract an additional $5 or 10 billion in foreign investment, government policies can be introduced to encourage productive investment of this huge resource which presently remains untapped.

Real determinant of development is human choice

Resources are a creation of the human mind. It is the application of human intelligence and inventiveness that