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


BBC Business Live

    MARKET UPDATE 08:40:

    The FTSE 100 is a touch higher in early trading. Royal Mail and AstraZeneca are among the biggest winners, both up almost 2%. Elsewhere in Frankfurt the Dax is a little lower and in Paris the Cac 40 is 0.3% lower. Jet engine maker Safran is down 2.6% after reporting a 3.3% rise in revenue in the first quarter.


    Shares in Primark owner Associated British Foods have jumped more than 9%. That follows the news that Primark is following a well-trodden, but perilous path for British retailers - the one that leads to the US.


    Ahead of Apple's results, due this evening, Walt Mossberg has this assessment on the company's health since Steve Jobs' death. "There have been no new game-changing products," he says. "But I think the most useful way of thinking about Apple is to see it as a movie studio. Studios release blockbuster franchise movies every few years, and then try to live off a series of sequels."

    UBER INDIA Via Twitter Simon Atkinson Editor, India Business Report

    tweets: "Just interviewed @Uber_mumbai about launch. Big market but not much they can do about kind of traffic am now stuck in on way back to office"

    Chinese yuan

    China's currency has hit another 16-month low against the dollar. The yuan hit 6.2458 against the dollar and some traders are expecting it to hit 6.26 in the coming weeks. The slowing Chinese economy is among the factors blamed for the fall. There was more evidence of that today from the latest HSBC purchasing managers survey, which showed factory activity slowing for the fourth month in a row in April.


    We're slightly bemused by a line in Flybe's announcement. "Flybe will deploy five growth aircraft for its LCY operation," it says. If you've ever been on a growth aircraft, get in touch by tweeting @BBCBusiness or emailing

    Lockheed Martin

    Australia's PM, Tony Abbott, has approved the purchase of an additional 58 new F-35 fighter jets. The deal is reportedly worth 12.4bn Australian dollars (£6.8bn). The company which makes the F-35s, Lockheed Martin, posted first quarter earnings of $933m yesterday, a 23% rise.

    ARM PROFITS 07:49:

    Cambridge-based chip designer ARM has posted first quarter results for 2014. Its pre-tax profits are up 9% on the previous year, to £97.1m. The company says 2.9 billion ARM-based chips shipped during the quarter, up 11%.

    City airport

    Budget airline Flybe has announced a five-year deal with London's City Airport. New routes to and from Edinburgh, Belfast, Dublin, Inverness and Exeter will start in October.


    Patisserie Holdings, which owns five brands including the high-street chain Patisserie Valerie, has announced it will float on the London Stock Exchange. The company says it is seeking to raise approximately £33m.

    FRACKING 07:18: BBC Radio 4

    Ed Davey is also asked about fracking, and whether companies will be allowed to drill under private land without the permission of owners. Mr Davey says the government is "looking at the access rights". "The question is how those land owners are compensated and how those projects can go ahead," he adds.


    Energy and Climate Change Secretary Ed Davey is on Today. He says the eight projects will add 2% to the average energy bill by 2020. But in return we are getting "secure, clean energy". He says the government has more renewable energy projects than they are prepared to pay for, so if any of the eight companies drop out, there are others who would take their place.

    PRIMARK US VENTURE 07:12: Breaking News

    Budget clothing retailer Primark has announced it is venturing to the US. The company, which is owned by Associated British Foods, says it will open its first American branch in Boston by the end of 2015. It plans to open further stores in the north-east of the country in 2016. Given the experience of Tesco and M&S in the US, you have to admire their optimism.

    GREEN ENERGY PROJECTS 07:08: Breaking News
    Wind farm, Burbo Bank

    The Department of Energy and Climate Change has announced 8 big green energy projects. The contracts are expected to support 8,500 jobs. They include offshore wind farms and conversions of coal-powered plants to run on biomass. The projects will provide up to £12bn of private sector investment.

    EXECUTIVE PAY 06:56: Radio 5 live

    Mike Amey is back on Radio 5 Live. He's discussing Vince Cable's warning over bankers' pay. He says the business secretary wants shareholders to be able to vote down pay, and good internal governance. If these measures fail to be implemented, there could be "another round of regulation coming down the tracks".

    Moscow Times

    This from the Moscow Times. The founder of Russia's biggest social networking site fled the country on Tuesday. Pavel Durov, who founded Vkontakte seven years ago, was forced out of the company on Monday for refusing to share users' personal data, according to the article. It says the social network is now controlled by billionaires Igor Sechin and Alisher Usmanov, who have close links with the Kremlin.

    NICER NISA? 06:39: Radio 5 live

    Amid the furore over the Co-op, here's a mutual that's doing quite well. NISA, which stands for National Independent Supermarkets Association and operates over 4,000 stores, has reported a 10% rise in sales. Chief executive Neil Turton tells Wake Up to Money NISA was founded in 1977 when locals "joined together to combine their buying power". Mickey asks him if NISA convenience stores are more expensive. "Price is not the big thing for consumers - it's availability," says Mr Turton.

    EXECUTIVE PAY 06:33: BBC Radio 4

    The Today programme picks up on comments by Business Secretary Vince Cable. He has written to all FTSE 100 companies and urged restraint over pay. In a recorded clip on Today, Mr Cable said pay had, in the past, reached "ridiculous and dangerous levels" in the banking industry. But he said companies now have a chance "to make peace with the public". Mr Cable singled out Barclays, which has its annual meeting on Thursday.

    MARKET TRENDS 06:25: Radio 5 live

    Mike Amey has more interesting markets analysis, after other pharma shares, notably Astrazeneca, also did well yesterday. "The two areas where there's the most activity at the moment are the pharmaceutical sector and things like telecoms and cable - which are both quite stable income streams, whether the economy does well and badly," he explains. When the economy starts to do better, activity starts off in the stable sectors and moves out to others, so what we are seeing is a "pretty decent recovery".

    PHARMA SWAP 06:15: Radio 5 live

    Pharma, which is business speak for pharmaceutical companies, is back in the news, with Swiss firm Novartis and GSK swapping assets yesterday. Mike Amey, managing director at Pimco, tells Wake Up to Money they are sensibly focusing on their areas of expertise and not trying and be "all things to all men". Investors seem to agree - shares in GSK went up 5% yesterday, and Novartis did well too.

    SECURITISATION IS BACK 06:09: Radio 5 live

    The securitisation of debt - in which bundles of loans are sold on to investors - was one of the factors which led to the 2008 crash. But now both the ECB and Mark Carney are saying it could be a way to get money into the system again. Richard Hopkin, head of securitisation at AFME, tells Wake Up to Money the success of securitisation depends on who's in charge. He uses an analogy: "Cars don't cause accidents, it's the people driving the cars".

    JAPAN TRADE 06:03: BBC World News
    Linda Yueh

    Barack Obama makes his first state visit to Japan today. He is expected to push the Trans-Pacific Partnership - an important trade deal that would eliminate trade barriers and standardise regulations. But, in a report on World Business Report, chief business correspondent Linda Yueh says Japan's rice farmers are worried it will mean the end of protection - in particular a 778% tax on imported rice.

    06:02: Joe Miller Business Reporter

    Good morning. You can contact us throughout the morning by tweeting @BBCBusiness or emailing

    06:01: Ben Morris Business Reporter

    Good morning. We're expecting the government to announce several big green energy projects today. So stay with the Business Live page for that.



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.