Peter Coy writes on the worldwide problem of youth unemployment and its repercussions.
In Tunisia, the young people who helped bring down a dictator are called hittistes—French-Arabic slang for those who lean against the wall. Their counterparts in Egypt, who on Feb. 1 forced President Hosni Mubarak to say he won't seek reelection, are the shabab atileen, unemployed youths. The hittistes and shabab have brothers and sisters across the globe. In Britain, they are NEETs—"not in education, employment, or training." In Japan, they are freeters: an amalgam of the English word freelance and the German word Arbeiter, or worker. Spaniards call them mileuristas, meaning they earn no more than 1,000 euros a month. In the U.S., they're "boomerang" kids who move back home after college because they can't find work. Even fast-growing China, where labor shortages are more common than surpluses, has its "ant tribe"—recent college graduates who crowd together in cheap flats on the fringes of big cities because they can't find well-paying work.
In each of these nations, an economy that can't generate enough jobs to absorb its young people has created a lost generation of the disaffected, unemployed, or underemployed—including growing numbers of recent college graduates for whom the post-crash economy has little to offer. Tunisia's Jasmine Revolution was not the first time these alienated men and women have made themselves heard. Last year, British students outraged by proposed tuition increases—at a moment when a college education is no guarantee of prosperity—attacked the Conservative Party's headquarters in London and pummeled a limousine carrying Prince Charles and his wife, Camilla Bowles. Scuffles with police have repeatedly broken out at student demonstrations across Continental Europe. And last March in Oakland, Calif., students protesting tuition hikes walked onto Interstate 880, shutting it down for an hour in both directions.
More common is the quiet desperation of a generation in "waithood," suspended short of fully employed adulthood. At 26, Sandy Brown of Brooklyn, N.Y., is a college graduate and a mother of two who hasn't worked in seven months. "I used to be a manager at a Duane Reade [drugstore] in Manhattan, but they laid me off. I've looked for work everywhere and I can't find nothing," she says. "It's like I got my diploma for nothing."