On August 7, 2011, Turner Clarke, a lawyer who unwittingly stayed late at the office that night, found himself at the intersection of a major social revolution as he drove through his regular route in Oxford Circus in downtown London.
“They were everywhere,” he remarked to me, “I turned around and sped away as fast as I could, staying at my sister’s home that night.” Turner was one of the lucky ones. Many of his neighbors and peers found themselves in the crosshairs of one of London’s most violent protests in recent history as many woke up the next morning to chilling images of broken storefronts, arson, and wild looting.
What started out as a peaceful protest against government injustices quickly turned into four vicious nights, as the debauchery itself became a symbol of government inadequacy for young people around the nation. For four horrifying nights, the city of London descended into anarchy as fire, smoke, and robbery consumed the city.
By August 11, retailers had lost almost 30,000 trading hours, £200 million in damages were reported, and 48,000 stores, restaurants, and bars began the arduous process of fixing the damage that had been done. And when the strenuous process of prosecuting the perpetrators began, the government was shocked to find that 2 out of 3 protestors were under the age of 25 with a full 17% of them between the ages of 11 and 17.
In the Middle East, a region where almost thirty percent of the population is between the ages of 15 and 29, it’s no surprise that the lack of opportunities and futures for the youth translated into one of the largest realignments of power in the 21st Century as nations from Egypt to Tunisia saw thousands of people on the streets. This wasn’t a revolution led by smoke-filled military conference rooms or competing political rivals; rather it was high school and college students, armed with mobile phones and social media that led protests, toppled regimes, and destabilized entire regions.
What’s exactly going on here? Around the world, of the 200 million people that are currently unemployed, 40% of them (a good 75 million) are between the ages of 16 and 25. In Spain, half of all young people under 25 cannot find jobs. Their peers in Greece, Ireland, and Italy, all face similar prospects, as almost 1 in 3 of young people are denied entrance into the workforce.
With over half of the world population under 27 years old, the urgency of the situation could not be graver. With no opportunities in place and no stake in their careers, these 75 million people from Greece to Japan are being forced into situations where the only viable option is to destabilize entire countries in favor of putting their futures back into their own hands.
And they may be right. Studies have proven over and over again that those that are left continuously unemployed, earn significantly less, are substantially less healthy, and are more prone to psychological illnesses as a result of a lack of self-confidence, relevant experience, and access to resources. While the full effects of youth unemployment may not be felt today, youth unemployment is a ticking time-bomb of catastrophic consequences for issues ranging from mental health to economic productivity if continued to be unaddressed by politicians.
Coincidentally, on Monday Barack Obama and Mitt Romney will square off in the last of three debates in the race to become President of the United States, a position that will undoubtedly have to face the unprecedented challenge of stabilizing entire regions. And while the theme of the debate has already been decided as foreign policy, it will no doubt revolve around questions regarding Chinese trade policy, Iranian nuclear technology, recent developments in Libya, and the Afghan surge. Absent from the debate will be any talk about youth unemployment.
Make no mistake, rampant youth unemployment (and underemployment) serves just as much a threat to national security and regional stability to many nations as nuclear threat and military activity – if not more so because of the higher probability of it making a difference in their country.
Stability and national security simply are not possible without adequate development in employment for young people around the world. Recent studies have shown that even a five percent drop in income may result in a fifty percent rise in the probability of instability and violent conflict. Poverty, particularly among young people, is the most destabilizing force for nations. Left with no legitimate alternatives and a weak entrepreneurial framework, young people in their desperation often turn to the black market and rebel groups to supplement their incomes.
And the question to these solutions may not be as simple as providing them with more education opportunities or allocating more foreign aid. As many youth in East Asia and the United States will tell you, these days, a degree is worth almost as much as the paper its printed on. Almost.
What’s needed in these nations isn’t more education, but rather a reallocation of resources to support young people in their efforts to utilize their degrees. Government regulations making it easier to create startups and job training programs that begin the difficult process of placing youth into quality jobs are necessary to the stability of many nations. And the United States plays a unique role in utilizing their foreign policy and soft power as a means to address this critical problem.
Both candidates would do well to address the growing concerns of young people around the world in Monday’s debate. Their foreign policy records just might depend on it.