Gordon Brown: We risk wasting an entire generation

Lack of work and skills lies behind many of the current regime-challenging protests. We must fund a future for the disaffected young

Sunday 20 February 2011 01:00 GMT

No one watching the demonstrations in Tunisia, Egypt, and now, Algeria, Yemen, Iran and Bahrain, can be in any doubt that protest is wearing a very youthful face. Everywhere we see the demand for human rights, for democracy and for an end to corruption. But there is also an economic dimension to the protests, the consequence of endemic unemployment and crushing poverty.

Two-thirds of Egypt's population is under 30, and these young people make up 90 per cent of the country's unemployed. Youth unemployment has hit 30 per cent in Tunisia. It is even higher, 45 per cent, in Algeria. By 2020, there will be an estimated 50 million young Arab workers without jobs.

Across Africa, too, there is an employment catastrophe. The continent will soon to be home to one in every four of the world's young people, but already 80 per cent of them are either out of work or on a family income of less than 75p a day. The number of young people around the world without work reached 81 million in 2010 – the highest level in two decades. Young people account for 44 per cent of its unemployed. The International Labour Organisation says that another 1.7 million youngsters have vanished altogether from official figures, no longer visible on unemployment registers.

As we learnt from last week's UK unemployment figures, developed countries are also being hit hard. The industrialised world had 12 per cent youth unemployment in 2007. Now it's 18 per cent. Almost half of all young people are out of work in Spain, and more than a third in Ireland. In the United Kingdom, America and Europe, one in every five young people are looking for a job.

One of the most ominous aspects of this situation is its immutability. The fragile recovery in the global economy is doing little to change it. Youth unemployment has become a structural problem. The headline figures, however shocking, do not tell the human or economic cost of youth unemployment: the tragic waste; the damage to families and communities; the colossal financial burden on societies. Lost wages in the economies of the Middle East and Africa are costing those continents around 7 per cent of their GDP.

The headline figures also fail to reveal the way in which unemployment threatens peace and security, the way it is callously manipulated by extremists to fuel turmoil.

Young people today can see and hear the experiences of other youngsters across different continents through mobiles and computers. They know that their prospects are no longer in step with their aspirations and their prospects are bleaker than those of their parents. And they are vulnerable to the messages articulated by fanatics.

In these circumstances, it seems obvious that the issue of youth unemployment cannot be ignored, obvious that we need immediate action across every continent.

Yet as I write this, the issue is not on the agenda at international conferences or on the table at our global institutions. Business leaders and politicians have not come together to find answers.

The Global Campaign for Education is to publish a report on the future of the world's children and teenagers which will suggest practical ways in which we can bridge the "opportunity gap" that they face today. World leaders must place this report at the heart of economic policies formulated to drive global growth. And it is time for the world to consider additional steps, too.

First, it's axiomatic that your chances of finding a job rise with your skills. That is true in every corner of the world. So it is wrong to go on denying educational and vocational opportunities to children and young people. We need quality learning for every child in Africa, the Middle East and Asia, and we do this by turning the World Bank's Fast Track Initiative into a global fund for education and opportunity.

For our young people in the West we need measures that either encourage them to stay in education or, if their aspiration is to start work sooner, we have to help them gain the essential training and experience they need to meet the challenges of a global jobs market. Such vital support would be in the spirit of a deficit reduction plan that enhanced growth rather than undermined it.

In the next decade, there will be an explosion in demand for new goods and services as consumer markets open in China and Asia. The opportunities for young people, if grasped , could be enormous. Africa could become a magnet for inward investment rather than a breeding ground of political discontent. At the moment, we are nowhere near meeting the opportunities coming down the pipeline: fewer than one in three children in Africa make it through to secondary school, and 29 million children of primary school age aren't even in school at all. It would be a scandalous failure if we do not take concrete steps to equip the world's children today with the education they need for tomorrow.

Second, let's harness the explosion in information technology and use it to help the next generation. It's now possible to create open colleges and universities in every part of the world where young people can access validated courses on the internet, on mobiles or by correspondence.

I am particularly inspired by the hugely imaginative proposals of John Sexton, president of New York University. He wants to open access to his world-class university to people around the world – not only by opening campuses in different countries across the global, but also by enabling internet-taught students to move into formal university learning with places at NYU. If the internet was invented for anything it was for this: the chance for a whole generation to skill themselves into a better life.

Third, the world is short of qualified teachers. We need to train at least two million more a year. I propose the establishment of a Teach the World network (based on the Teach America project in the US and Britain's own Teach First). I have already talked to the president of India's Congress Party, Rahul Gandhi, about a start in India, where Teach India is making excellent progress. The global network I propose would act as a skills-set transfer, where teachers from one country would help train those in another who have identified gaps in their educational programmes. The result would be a massive rise in standards across the globe: and a world workforce that had true equality of opportunity.

Fourth, we should set a time limit to unemployment and enforce it. No young person anywhere should go more than three months without the offer (and duty) of taking a job. We should look closely at how Japan, Finland and the Netherlands all successfully adhere to timetables for getting young people into work.

There is an alternative to a wasted generation. There are plenty of steps we can take, if the political will exists. There is no iron law that says unemployment should go on rising. By the time President Sarkozy convenes the G8 and G20 this year, there should be a plan in place to make these alternatives a reality.

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