Global youth unemployment: Making sense of the numbers

Students hold brief cases labelled 'ready to work' Almost 75 million young people are out of work

High youth unemployment is one of the biggest problems confronting societies around the world - but do we really know how bad the situation is?

The statistics are terrifying - the United Nations' International Labour Organization (ILO) estimates that close to 75 million 15 to 24-year-olds around the world are out of work. But how accurate is this number?

While the long-term costs of being young and jobless are not in doubt, we cannot say the same about the figures which are published in this area, because of the way unemployment rates are calculated.

All unemployment rates - including youth unemployment - are calculated as percentages not of the total population, but of something called the "economically active population".

Young and jobless in numbers

75 million
or 12.6%

of young people are
unemployed worldwide

Three times

more likely to be jobless

7.5 million

are not in education or training

Youth unemployment is highest in

North Africa - 27.9%

and lowest in

East Asia - 9%

It is defined as the employed plus the unemployed - but that leaves a huge number of other people out of the calculation.

This is because most countries calculate their unemployment rates by carrying out regular labour force surveys which ask people a series of questions which help place them into one of three categories.

But even these definitions might not be what you would necessarily think:

  • Employed: Someone who has performed any work. Even if it is just one hour a week, someone is counted as employed if they have worked for "family gain". So, someone who is delivering newspapers for a couple of hours a week is classed as being a worker. So is someone who helps out unpaid in a family business - people do not have to have been paid in order to be counted.
  • Unemployed: A person is classified unemployed if they do not have a job, but would like one, have actively looked for one and have the time to do it.
  • Economically inactive: Someone who is neither employed nor unemployed. So, it could be that the person does not want or need to work, so has not looked for a job. Or it could be that the person cannot work for a specific reason, such as bad health or studying full-time (although some students may have part-time jobs, and so be considered employed).
Distorted unemployment figures

The three classifications listed above are suggested by the ILO - but when they are applied to young people it can lead to some quite strange results.

The unemployment rate is calculated by dividing the number of unemployed people by the number of economically active people, which includes both employed and unemployed people.

The more young people who choose to stay in education, the bigger the pool of economically inactive young people grows - while the pool of young people who are economically active shrinks.

Any increase in the proportion of young people who decide to delay entering the labour market and keep studying - and remain economically inactive - has the effect of increasing unemployment figures because the number by which the unemployed population gets divided by shrinks.

But importantly, the overall number of young people stays the same.

The slider shows how it works. Slide the arrows.

As the number of people classed as inactive increases (2,560,000) so does the youth unemployment rate (21.6%). But the number of unemployed people stays the same at 1,020,000.

Unemployed (16-24)1,020,000
Employed (16-24)3,700,000
The youth unemployment rate is 21.6%of total workforce of 4,720,000

*Inactive can include students. The data is from the UK's Office for National Statistics, July 2012.

Start Quote

You cannot only take the unemployment rate and say this is my only measure of problems in the labour market”

End Quote Ekkehard Ernst International Labour Organisation

So, as more and more young adults choose to stay in education, the economically active population - the denominator used to calculate the unemployment rate - reduces, and appears to drive up unemployment.

As a result youth unemployment rates can distort the picture of how bad the job prospects are for a country's young people.

"I think it's important to advise against the use of any single indicator," says Ekkehard Ernst, the ILO's head of unemployment trends.

"You cannot only take the unemployment rate and say this is my only measure of problems in the labour market.

"This is because - even for the adult population - you have differences in the possibility that people have to draw from unemployment benefits.

"You also have differences in the tax systems that incentivise people to participate or not in the labour market."

Out-of-date data

In the developing world, where it is not so easy to stay in full-time education and there is not the same level of unemployment benefits to fall back on, young people are often forced to take any work that is available, which can be poorly paid and sporadic.

How the big number breaks down

Region Young unemployed






Developed Economies and EU



Central and South-Eastern Europe



East Asia



South East Asia and the Pacific



South Asia



Latin America and the Caribbean



Middle East



North Africa



Sub-Saharan Africa



Source: ILO

So, the rate alone often does not reflect the true problems of people finding appropriate jobs with a regular wage attached.

For these reasons some argue that youth unemployment is better and more accurately represented by using a ratio, calculated as the share of unemployed, as a percentage of the whole youth population.

And if you use these, things look rather different.

Take Spain - the country with the worst youth unemployment rate in Europe in 2011 at 46.4%.

If the ratio is used instead, the figure is more than halved to 19% - in troubled Greece it is even more pronounced.

While Greece had an unenviable youth unemployment rate of 2011 of 44.4%, its corresponding ratio was 13%. (Source: Eurostat)

These are still very high numbers with real people lying behind the statistics, but it paints perhaps not such a stark picture.

Another major problem with global youth unemployment statistics is the quality of the data itself.

Data collection methods vary between countries - many use different age limits to define exactly who is classed a young person. While in others the data can be old or missing altogether.

When unemployed is not unemployed

Some countries do not even count first-time unemployed as being unemployed at all - clearly a problem when applying that idea to young people.

These difficulties can be seen in the data from the two regions highlighted by ILO research as having the highest youth unemployment rates - the Middle East and North Africa.

In these areas, the situation looks bleak. Youth unemployment in the Middle East is 26.5%, with 3.4 million young people without a job. In North Africa the rate is even higher at 27.9% - 3.85 million jobless.

Young and jobless graphic

High youth unemployment is one of the biggest problems confronting societies around the world, condemning whole generations to a life of much reduced income.

In our special report we look at the challenges facing today's young and jobless, and the attempts to overcome the problem.

The official figures for countries in these two regions are wildly out of date, with some data missing entirely.

Four countries make up the North Africa region - Algeria, Egypt, Morocco and Tunisia. But the most recent unemployment numbers for Egypt were published in 2007. Tunisia's most recent data is from 2005.

Both of these countries have seen enormous upheaval since this data was published, as a result of the Arab Spring.

If youth unemployment predictions were based solely on this research, the total number of young unemployed in the Middle East is 796,000 - a quarter of the ILO's estimate - and 2.4 million in North Africa.

Measuring youth unemployment in sub-Saharan Africa is even more tricky, says the ILO, where much of the data is between 10 to 15 years old - or missing completely.

Given the figures it has for the rest of the world, the ILO says its global figures are "relatively reliable" but because of the limitations caused by countries with old or missing data, the ILO relies on econometric models to fill in the gaps.

Start Quote

If you look at the global figure then it is true that you have to take it with a grain of salt”

End Quote Ekkehard Ernst International Labour Organisation

"We are regularly updating the models that we use for countries. We do take into account economic and political circumstances in order to make sure this is reflected," Ekkehard Ernst explains.

"Our unemployment estimations for North Africa has gone up dramatically since 2011 and we're projecting further increases over the next year.

"This is as best and as close as you can get to the reality if there is no information truly available at the country level."

Unemployment is undoubtedly a huge obstacle confronting millions of young people across the globe.

But as even the ILO concedes, there is huge difficulty in comparing national data, which is often inconsistent, incomplete or simply unavailable.

This problem is compounded by the distorting effect of large numbers of young people remaining in education and so a degree of caution should be exercised when quoting unemployment rates.

"There is an element of uncertainty in there," says Ekkehard Ernst.

"We do have an idea of this indicator being relatively precise for developed economies because it's directly measured and these are typically the countries where most of the measured unemployment is happening.

"But if you look at the global figure then it is true that you have to take it with a grain of salt."

More on This Story

Related Stories

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external Internet sites

More Business stories


Business Live

    10:56: Deutsche to sell Postbank?

    Deutsche Bank says it is going to review its strategy in 2015 after a German business magazine said it was considering major changes, which could include the sale of its Postbank subsidiary and a revision of its profit targets. Deutsche refused to be drawn on the possible sale. Manager Magazin reported shareholder disquiet at Deutsche Bank's current progress and said Santander may be interested in buying Postbank. Santander has kept schtum.

    10:41: Pork pie probe
    A picture of a Sainsbury's Melton Mowbray Pork Pie

    The Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) has launched an investigation into the merger of two pork pie makers. Pork Farms' plans to buy Kerry Foods' chilled savoury pastry (CSP) business, which includes pork pies, sausage rolls, pasties and slices, quiches and scotch eggs. The market is worth about £1bn a year. The CMA is worried the business will be too big will face competition from only 1 or 2 other suppliers.

    10:23: Swiss interest rates turn negative

    Switzerland doesn't want your money. That was the message earlier this morning when the Swiss central bank cut interest rates to minus 0.25%, cutting the value of large sums of money left on deposit in the country. The negative interest rate is being applied to "sight deposits" - a form of instant access account - of more than 10m Swiss francs (£6.5m).

    10:08: Russia crisis

    A thinly veiled threat for the European Union from President Putin. "Do they the [EU] want a stable guaranteed supply of energy resources from Russia that they desperately need?" he asks. "If they don't want it, well, then it's not going to happen. There are no other energy sources other than from Russia," he warns.

    Black Friday bonanza Via Email Maeve Johnston UK Economist, Capital Economics

    While the effects from Black Friday should prove to be temporary, it is clear that the underlying picture is very strong. With consumers' discretionary spending power likely to be boosted by the drop in the oil price, confidence strong, and real incomes set to record their strongest growth in more than a decade in 2015, we remain optimistic on the prospects for retail sales over the next year.

    Via Twitter Office for National Statistics

    "'Black Friday' helped boost household electrical goods by 32% in Nov 14 compared to Nov 13"

    09:55: Russia crisis

    Mr Putin starts using hunting metaphors: "There are some people that want the Russian bear to lie down and eat berries," Mr Putin says. That way they can chain him and remove his "teeth and nails." The crisis should be an opportunity to change the structure of the economy otherwise Russia could end up "skinned and hanging from a wall" Mr Putin says.

    09:52: Russia crisis

    If you think the Russian government is bureaucratic you should see the bureaucracy of the European Union, says Mr Putin. Even the Russian president has started making jokes about the EU now. Nigel Farage will be delighted.

    09:47: Rouble remains volatile
    Rouble dollar

    The rouble has been bouncing around while President Putin has been speaking. It is trading around the lows for the session with a dollar buying more than 62 roubles, but earlier the rouble had strengthened to 58 to the dollar.

    09:39: Russia crisis

    Mr Putin's press conference continues. He says the country will be back on its feet within two years. Growth will be inevitable, he says. Growth in the world economy will increase the need for energy resources, he says. But Mr Purtin says the economy still needs to be more diverse. $419bn of reserves will not be wasted he says. The government will fulfil its social obligations, he adds.

    09:33: Black Friday bonanza
    John Lewis shop window

    Retail sales surged at their fastest rate in more than a decade in November, according to the Office for National Statistics. Retail sales volumes grew 1.6% from October and showed annual growth of 6.4%, the fastest annual pace since May 2004. Those figures were helped by the popularity of Black Friday this year.

    09:23: Russia crisis

    Mr Putin says he hopes to see some strengthening of the rouble over the next few days. What happens if oil prices fall further? He says the government will focus its attention on those people that really need its help. He's guaranteeing to pay pensions and social security but he has just opened the door to "reduce some social spending".

    09:21: Russia crisis
    President Vladimir Putin

    "I think everybody understands the most important situation of the day is that of the national currency," Mr Putin says. He blames "outside factors" for the fall in the rouble. Mr Putin says: "We have also failed to do a lot of what we had planned in terms of diversification over the last 20 years". "I think the central bank and the government are taking adequate measures to deal with the situation," he adds.

    09:19: Russia crisis

    President Putin's annual press conference has begun and he's getting straight to the point and talking about the economy. So far it's just the numbers, unemployment is low, he says, below 5% and Russia's industrial complex should have grown by 3% by the end of the year. The government budget is running a surplus of 1.9%, he adds.

    09:07: Russia crisis BBC Radio 4
    Vladimir Putin

    Russian president Vladimir Putin holds his end-of-year news conference this morning. Anne Applebaum, a former editor of the Economist, says Mr Putin's legitimacy as leader is based on a pact with the Russia people that he will bring them stability and rising living standards. In return the Russian people will live with the fact they don't really have democracy and will tolerate a great deal of corruption by him and the people around him, she says.

    09:04: Russia crisis BBC Radio 4

    Anne Applebaum suggests the Russian people are likely to begin to question whether Mr Putin should stay in power if they are not getting anything in return, such as rising living standards. But there is no mechanism to remove him, she says. The test is whether he can keep the economy going over the next couple of months, in the meantime he can blame the West for the problems, or elements within Russia says Ms Applebaum.

    08:56: GM suspends Russian sales
    GM logo

    GM has suspended sales of cars to Russian dealers, blaming the the "volatility of the rouble exchange rate", Bloomberg reports. Cadillacs, Opels and Chevrolets already ordered will be delivered at the agreed price, the reports says.

    08:44: Newspaper review
    Business pages

    Let's have a quick look at the business pages. The Financial Times leads with that thawing of relations between Cuba and the US. It also says plummeting oil prices have hit renewable energy firms. The Telegraph says that BT is looking to raise £2bn by selling shares to fund its purchase of EE. The Times says that investors have been spooked by Russia's crisis and are abandoning emerging market debt.

    08:28: North Sea oil crisis
    North Sea Oil platform

    North Sea oil firms and service providers are cutting staff and investment to save money and the industry is "close to collapse" the independent explorers' association Brindex has said. Falling oil prices are now beginning to make North Sea oil production too costly it suggests. Brent Crude has now fallen below $60 per barrel and has fallen nearly 50% since the summer.

    08:10: Sony cancels The Interview

    A cinema in Texas is replacing The Interview with "Team America: World Police" says Radio 5 live presenter Rachel Burden. That might make Texans feel a bit better about the hacking of Sony Pictures, which North Korea is thought to be involved in. As well as satirising gung-ho Americans Team America World Police ridicules Kim Jong-il, the father of North Korea's current leader Kim Jong-un. Take that North Korea!

    07:56: Royal Mail privatisation Radio 5 live

    "There's a huge opportunity for financial institutions to game the system," Lord Myners tells Radio 5 live. He's talking about the process of "book building" whereby big investors like pension firms and insurers are approached and asked what they think a firm is worth. Transparent digital auctions would be a better way of fixing a price. says Lord Myners.

    07:42: Royal Mail privatisation BBC Radio 4

    "I think actually the sale of Royal Mail was a well-balanced complex exercise and the government managed to achieve its objective, Lord Myners tells Today. When asked why UBS forecast a price of 450p for Royal Mail shares, around the time the 330p a share price was set, Lord Myners argues that is an example of the so-called "Chinese Walls" within investment banks working.

    07:23: Sony cancels The Interview
    Movie poster for The Interview

    Jon Taplin who produced Martin Scorsese's Mean Streets and The Last Waltz makes some interesting points on Radio 5 live about Sony's withdrawing The Interview. He points out that the biggest US movie chain AMC is owned by a Chinese firm. Many movie theatres are in shopping centres and AMC says it was under pressure from those shopping centres who were worried that shoppers would stay away if The Interview was playing. (The hackers had warned of 911-style attacks).

    07:08: Mobile phone coverage Radio 5 live
    mobile phone user

    There's been a "huge row" between mobile operators and companies says BBC technology correspondent Rory Cellan-Jones on Radio 5 live. The result is today's announcement that firms will invest £5bn in mobile kit to achieve 90% geographic coverage by 2017. That £5bn was going to be spent anyway says Rory, the companies wanted the government to abandon a "national roaming" scheme that they hated.

    06:52: Local government pensions BBC Radio 4

    Local government pensions schemes are "staggeringly inefficient and a national embarrassment", according to the right leaning think-tank, the Centre for Policy Studies which has published a report calling for a radical overhaul of them. Currently 89 separate schemes in England and Wales are £47bn in deficit, it says. The report comes on the same day as the local government finance settlement.

    06:48: Local council spending Radio 5 live

    Later this morning, councils in England will find out how much money they are likely to get from the government for the next financial year. Councils are expecting a 12% cut in their budgets. They are saying that the situation is "virtually unsustainable and services will start buckling under the strain", according to BBC political correspondent, Iain Watson. The government argues that councils have coped well with cuts so far, Iain says on Radio 5 live.

    06:39: Royal Mail privatisation BBC Radio 4
    Royal Mail Glasgow

    The big problem for the government was judging the price and ensuring interest from institutional investors in Royal Mail, CCLA Investment Management's James Bevan tells Today. If shares were priced too high Royal Mail might not have attracted enough interest from institutional investors. That would have meant the shares would have lost value when they debuted on the stock market, and the government "gets accused of being greedy," Mr Bevan adds.

    06:33: Royal Mail privatisation BBC Radio 4

    So the report into the stock market flotation of Royal Mail has been released but James Bevan, from CCLA Investment Management tells the Today programme the report tells us "very little about what actually happened. It's more of blueprint for what should happen in the future." He says the report seems to focus more on how to deal with institutional investors in any future privatisations.

    06:27: Sony cancels The Interview Radio 5 live
    A banner for "The Interview"is posted outside Arclight Cinemas

    Sony Pictures has now cancelled the release of the film that provoked a cyber attack on the company. On Radio 5 live Steve Futterman, Los Angeles reporter for CBS Radio News, says it was primarily a business decision as five major theatre chains had abandoned the comedy (called The Interview), after the hackers made references to 911-style attacks. But Mr Futterman asks: Will the film have a video release or appear on a streaming service when the situation calms down?

    06:19: US interest rates Radio 5 live

    "Markets are hugely relieved that the Fed will not be tightening rates any time soon," says James Bevan, from CCLA Investment Management. On Radio 5 live Mr Bevan says the markets are now betting there will not be a rise in interest rates during the next calendar year.

    06:12: Cuba new era Radio 5 live

    "It's quite a dramatic and unexpected step," says Phillip Oppenheim, managing director of coffee company, Alma de Cuba. That's after President Barack Obama announced moves to normalise diplomatic and economic ties. Mr Oppenheim thinks that announcement could make a real difference in two or three years time. He says that Cuba is very slowly being liberalised. It's become easier to set up small businesses, for example.

    06:09: Royal Mail privatisation Radio 5 live

    Peter Hahn from Cass Business School explains that big institutional investors were approached in what's known as a "pilot fishing" exercise to ascertain a price Royal Mail. They, of course, were incentivised to quote a low price. Mr Hahn says that's a slightly simplified scenario - but was basically what happened. "IPOs (initial public offerings) are always more of an art than a science," Mr Hahn says on Radio 5 live.

    06:07: Royal Mail privatisation
    Royal Mail"s Glasgow mail centre at St Rollox

    The government made £180m less from the £2bn sale of Royal Mail than it could have, a report commissioned by Business Secretary Vince Cable has said. It says shares could have been valued up to 30p more than the flotation price of 330p because of the high level of demand from banks and individuals. It said future government share sales should be more transparent and the pricing could be set at a later stage.

    06:03: Markets boosted by US Fed

    US Federal Reserve chair Janet Yellen had some Christmas cheer for investors and borrowers on Wednesday when she signalled the central bank planned to be "patient" before raising interest rates. Most analysts had expected the Fed to signal its willingness to raise interest rates early next year but Ms Yellen's comments suggest the bank it wiling to wait a little longer. That's given markets a boost so far today.

    06:02: Ben Morris Business Reporter

    If you want to get in touch you can email or tweet us @bbcbusiness.

    06:00: Matthew West Business Reporter

    Morning folks. It's going to be another busy morning by the looks of things. Yesterday's reassurance from the US Federal Reserve has cheered markets in Asia and even lifted the Russia rouble. Meanwhile, Royal Mail was "underpriced" by £180m, a report into its stock market flotation has found. There's lots more to come, so stay with us.



BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.