Caribbean Youth and Unemployment

Caribbean Youth and Unemployment

Marcia Forbes PhD

IDB ConSoc

As a member of the Inter-American Development Bank’s Civil Society Consultative Committee I was invited to present at the ‘XIV Reunion BID – Sociedad Civil’ in Nicaragua late 2014. The following are excerpts from my preparation pertaining to Caribbean youth and jobs.

Regional Diversity

The Caribbean, by whatever definition, is comprised of countries that are not homogeneous. They present diverse and unique features such as geographical size, multi-ethnic populations with cultural differences, varying age profiles and socio-economic conditions. Data which present aggregated perspectives of the region are quite likely to disguise important differences. That noted, many members of CARICOM share common features such as high youth employment, poverty, high crime rates, high levels of female headed households and failing education systems. So even in their admitted diversity, Caribbean youths bear some similarities.

Youth – A Critical Cohort

Like the Caribbean, the definition of ‘youth’ varies. Different organizations use different age ranges in their definition. Many Caribbean youth policies categorize those 15 to 30 years of age as ‘youth’. For the United Nations it is those 15 to 24 years of age. In its 2010 report, Eye on the Future Investing in Youth Now for Tomorrow’s Community, CARICOM used the age range of 15 to 20. It is not always clear which age range is being used by various studies and reports.

The Caribbean has a youthful population, with sixty (60) per cent of its citizenry under the age of 30 years. Those in the 15 to 29 age range comprise almost twenty (20) percent of this. Young people therefore form a critical cohort and represent the hopes, aspirations and future of the region.

Caribbean has Highest Youth Unemployment Levels

Although youth unemployment is a big issue globally, it is especially so across many Caribbean countries. Caribbean youth unemployment levels are reported to be the highest in the world (Youth Unemployment and Labour in the Caribbean, Caribbean Knowledge Series, January 2014).

Underemployment is also a major concern. Looking at the labour force data for Jamaica, one frightening statistic is that almost two-thirds of the underemployed fall in the 25 to 44 age range. Then too, almost another 40% is unemployed. This country is increasingly unable to compete because the culture of work is foreign to so many of her citizens. Youth unemployment and underemployment are cancers that eat away at the psychological well-being of Caribbean youth.

Negative Social Conditions

Hit by the global recession of 2008/2009, many Caribbean countries, already reeling from poverty and high debt to GDP ratios, have sunken deeper into economic decline, with a regional average of zero economic growth in 2010. Caribbean countries have also declined into social quagmire. Within the region, negative social conditions of poverty, crime, relatively high rates of teenage pregnancy and HIV/AIDS, mismatch between workplace requirements and school curricula, and joblessness have pushed eighty-five percent (85%) of youth in this region to see migration to more developed countries as an attractive option (Eye on the Future, CARICOM 2010).

Regional Unemployment

We know that the trend is for youth unemployment to be substantially above national levels. Take Barbados for example where in 2010 the national rate was 11.1% while the overall youth unemployment rate was about 2.5 times higher at 27.6%. We also know that in general female youths suffer greater levels of unemployment than their male counterparts.

Looking to North America

Caribbean youth do not look to better-performing countries within the region for jobs or access to a better life. They primarily look to North America, in particular the USA. Many are disappointed and disillusioned, describing life in the Caribbean as “living in hell”, “living without hope” and “living like dogs” (Eye on the Future, CARICOM 2010). These views are not unfounded given the region’s high and rapidly climbing homicide rate, moving from under 20 homicides per 100,000 population in 1995 to about 30 per 100,000 in 2011, coupled with other previously mentioned negative social conditions. The region stands to continue to lose its brightest and best, a situation that does not bode well for Caribbean growth and development.

Caribbean Youths Unprepared for New Global Realities

The digital divide is a reality within the Caribbean. The majority of youths in this region do not have Internet access at home; neither do they have personal computers. They mainly rely on access to these technologies at school. This is usually woefully inadequate to prepare them to compete with youths elsewhere who are better equipped. For example, in Jamaica household Internet penetration is a mere 15.6% while only 24% have a computer at home (Caribbean ICT Indicators and Broadband Survey – Jamaica Report, Mona School of Business, UWI 2011). Although there is a Government-funded eLearning Project to computerize schools, facilitate Internet access and electronic learning, many students admit that they abuse school facilities, using them to access pornography (Forbes, 2012) and play games.

Internet for Entertainment

In my own data-collection across Jamaica, Dominica, Trinidad and the USA, it is clear that Caribbean youths mainly focus on downloading, not uploading content, except for Facebook posts. Many see the Internet as a place for entertainment, to watch music videos and engage via social networks.

“Facebooking topped the list, accounting for a whopping 59.5 percent of the combined top three activities that occupy Jamaican’s time online” (Forbes, 2012:27).

Many youths do not conceive of the Internet as a place for finding jobs, believing instead that without family and friendship connections finding a job is virtually impossible. It is only in its 2014 examinations that the Caribbean Examination Council (CXC) introduced a Digital Media Syllabus.

Digital Divide

The digital divide and inadequate digital literacy contribute to joblessness as youths fail to take full advantage of the Internet in their job search. However, information communication technology (ICT) and digital skills are in high demand by employers. Those who are not so equipped,  are at a distinct disadvantage.

January 6, 2015