Why Youth Are Unemployable

There’s a growing consensus among many employers that youth today aren’t employable. Whether they’re looking for blue collar jobs or professional careers, workplaces simply aren’t satisfied with the skills, knowledge, or abilities of young people anymore.

The reason for employers being dissatisfied with young workers is relatively simple. However, seeing that simple problem requires peeling back some different lenses used to talk about youth employment today.

Using my experience working in education and workforce development programs, along with current news and research, I have identified several lenses that color the ways employers see youth today. Here are some of them.

3 Reasons Employers Say They Don’t Hire Youth

  • Youth Seem Too Entitled. Employers frequently say that whether they’re high school dropouts or college graduates, youth today seem too entitled. No matter their station in life, they think they should have rewarding work, ideal workplaces, fair pay, good benefits, and substantive advancement opportunities. In return, they don’t want to work as hard, as long, or as meaninglessly as their parents or grandparents did. Employers talk about how parents of youth today are too obsessed with their childrens’ happiness, and because of that young workers don’t know how to work hard for anything. Instead of working for the opportunities they have, many youth are simply taking those things as if they belong to them by birthright instead of earning them.
  • Youth Are Too Apathetic. With their obsessive amount of piercings, tattoos, and poor clothing, employers say youth constantly show that they are indifferent to common workplace expectations for appearance. Reflecting that indifference, youth today don’t respect the predominant Protestant Work Ethic that has dominated successful businesses around the world for more than 400 years. Many bosses say that young workers’ apathy shows in monumental ways when they simply don’t exert the energy needed to get the job done.
  • Youth Just Aren’t Ready. Despite all their education and education reform, tutoring, youth programs, and other entitlements youth enjoy today, employers consistently report that youth aren’t showing up for work ready to get the jobs done. Instead, they’re under-skilled and less-than-willing to learn what they need to in order to perform the most menial labor. Even college graduates are incapable of accomplishing the most basic of tasks for many jobs, with employers saying these youth shirked necessary learning in higher education in order to pursue learning that made them happy, or just took the easy classes to get through.

I have regularly heard and seen these reasons effectively stop young workers from getting and keeping the jobs they need today. President ObamaRepublicans, the pope, and many, many other leaders around the world see youth unemployment as a major issue.

Before we can address youth unemployment in a real way though, we need to see what the real causes are. Since we’ve read some of the reasons employers readily share, I want to uncover the main cause for why youth today aren’t employable: Discrimination Against Youth.

The Real Problem

Discrimination against youth is the main reason why employers think youth are unemployable. Discrimination, which is defined in several ways, includes the meaning, “the recognition and understanding of the difference between one thing and another.” Employers are constantly discriminating; however, in the case of employing young people, they are discriminating against youth.

Whether we’re reviewing job applications, interviewing prospective candidates, hiring youth, training them to do their jobs, or supervising and managing them everyday, employers are constantly discriminating against youth.

For 17 years, I have run a boutique consulting firm. Of the 25 employees I’ve hired, more than half were under 21, and many were under 18. Throughout my career in education, I’ve supervised hundreds of employees for other organizations, with the vast majority of them being under 18. I have worked as an adult living skills instructor, teaching youth skills they needed to become successful adults including the ability to get and keep work. Most recently, I oversaw a youth employment program serving more than 500 young people across the region where I live, which is mostly rural along with seating the state capital.

I discriminate against youth. Surely, I judge them by their appearance, their actions, their attitudes, and the outcomes they produce too; however, I start by judging them by their age.

I don’t do that with adults.

Instead, I study adults’ resumes carefully, engage deeply with their interviewing processes, and thoughtfully inquire about them to their references. I review their education and training, and delve into their thinking if I call people back in for a second interview. I don’t do it the same way with youth, and I know that many employers are just like me.

All of that is to say that this isn’t a hypothetical essay written by a well-meaning do-gooder. Instead, its meant to be a practical treatise that examines a common, under-explored, and urgent reality facing the world today.

Why We Discriminate Against Youth

For more than 50 years, marketers have been ripping away at youth engagement as economic actors. This includes their roles as customers, employees, clients, and producers. We discriminate against youth because doing so makes us money.

Before the 1950s, youth were not treated as distinct figures in the marketplace. Instead, they were generally treated as young adults and were marketed to using the desires of adults to captivate their attentions. Realizing their potential as consumers, marketers identified them as an under-attended segment starting with the post-WWII economic boom.

Slowly and steadily, marketers repositioned youth from being the passive recipients of the adult-driven economic towards becoming active consumers. Initially relying on the concept of a generalized type of “every youth”, ad campaigns and new products frequently suggested that youth without discretionary incomes could earn their way to wealth. Marketers began exploiting difference social values among youth, increasingly pushing market segmentation along socio-economic class lines. They casted images of “punks” and “jocks”, “surfers” and “cool cats”, “Blacks” and still others upon American youth, leaving them to identify with the clothes, music, and other trends marketers foisted on them.

What the ad men and corporate leaders soon discovered was that this line of thinking ignored the economic reality of youth: Without money, there was no way to market high dollar items to low- or no-income youth.

That led marketers began keying in on youth with passive, discretionary income as their ideal targets, and cuing up others for cheaper, lower quality purchases. Children and youth became identified as the penultimate consumers, as their young purchasing habits informed their older purchasing habits. With their singular position in life as the compulsory attendees of public schools, the vast majority of youth were literally a captive audience for both explicit and passive marketing campaigns. Students in schools who wear particular logos identify along particular social and economic class lines, forming clear brand identities that are associated with their personal and familial worth. Those same students take certain classes, attend the right social events, and do the same activities both in and out of schools. Their apparent desire for conformity and community make them the ideal audience for high pressure peer-to-peer marketing tactics that marketers have honed since the advent of youth.

Simultaneously, the promoters of mass media realized that sensationalizing the challenges facing young people and making youth the problem instead of seeing them as the solution sells newspapers. Falling into the trap of commercialization, many nonprofit organizations and educational leaders have fell into this perspective too, actively discriminating against youth in order to secure funding for their seemingly beneficent activities. Politicians respond in kind, boosting police funding, entrenching standardized teaching and assessments in schools, and continuously and deeply demonizing youth themselves. All of this further segregates youth from society.

Youth who are excluded from the mass socialization in schools had room made for them, too: Getting low grades and dropping out makes them ideal candidates for service sector jobs, while the school-to-prison pipeline situates them squarely as income generators for corporations that profiteer off delinquency.

All this is to show that adults discriminate against youth because we make money by doing it. There are many ways that happens, and following are three:

  • Segregation: Ensuring their self-identification in social class segregated consumer spending groups through schools allows marketers to appeal directly to appropriate potential youth consumers according to their income levels.
  • Condemnation: Originally condemning to service sector work adults wouldn’t do gave them disposable income marketers could appeal to with high demand, low-cost, high profit products;
  • Stagnation: Repealing those job opportunities from the lowest income young employees virtually assures their economic and educational stagnation, perfectly positioning them to move along the school-to-prison pipeline that generates major revenues.

Basically, we rely on discrimination against youth to drive our economy. Our perception that youth today are unemployable is intact because of discrimination against youth.

How It Happens

These realities apply to young employees in a variety of ways. In an age of economic downturn, young people are seen as expendable participants in the employment pool because of their socio-economic statuses. Denied those formerly presumably disposable incomes, they are viewed as irrelevant actors in a sea of adults who apparently need jobs more than youth. Employers rationalize this during hiring processes in many ways, attributing their discrimination against young people with the cliche condemnations:

  • “Youth today don’t know how to wear their clothes! Their pants are too saggy or their hair is too colorful!”
  • “These kids don’t have the right work ethic. When I was young…”
  • “I don’t like their attitudes. I need someone who wants to come in here and work hard, do the right thing, and get paid money to get a job done, not just because they think they’re owed something.”

These attitudes are typical and common among adults today. While every single adult doesn’t discriminate in these ways, we all discriminate in some ways, whether at home or throughout our communities. However, the irony is that people who are in hiring, supervising, and managing roles today had the very same things said about their generations when they were younger. The cyclical nature of marketing insists that companies return to the same tried and true strategies every generation in order to assure repeat customers and brand loyalty. Large corporations do this continuously; small companies and upstarts rely on previous generations’ attitudes towards young people to sell product too.

All of this is inherently discriminatory towards youth for many reasons, chief among which is that implicit and immediate condemnation of youth because of their age. Rather than being based in non-biased research and reality that acknowledges the varying and evolving abilities of all young people, we routinely and systematically lump them all into the same category, assign them the same attributes and deficits, and figure they’ll do the same things, no matter what.

How to Make Youth Employable

There are many different things we can do instead of relying on discrimination against youth to forward our economy. We can recognize the possibilities that are inherent within every single youth, no matter what race, socio-economic class, cultural background, or educational ability they are. We can actively, purposefully engage youth as economic actors who are capable and responsible for engaging future generations of youth. We can change the world.

Yesterday, I spent a few hours working with a group of educators focused on youth employment. After discussing my recent article called “5 Lies Employers Tell Youth Today“, we talked about what everyone can practically, actually do to make a difference. Here are several options anyone can do right now make youth employable.

8 Steps to Youth Employability

  1. Accept Responsibility. If you actually believe youth are unemployable, you are actually responsible for that condition, as well as for addressing it. If just 10% of all adults everywhere accepted responsibility for doing something different, youth unemployment would become rare around the world. No matter if you are a parent, a teacher, a police officer, business owner, politician, store manager, or simply a neighbor, you have a role to play. Read on to learn what that is.
  2. Teach Young People About Mindsets. From birth, teach all young people everywhere to be willing to learn. Build lessons in how we think into early childhood development programs, and mandate all educators teach about learning styles and mindsets, and more.
  3. Promote Practical Hopefulness. Many adults have largely given up on young people today, whether they recognize it or not. Instead of piping false hope across social media and television, we have to promote practical hopefulness that engenders real action.
  4. Create Partnerships. As they enter their teen years, actively engage every young person in every community in an equitable partnership with an adult, whether as a mentor, in an apprenticeship, or otherwise.
  5. Build Connectivity. Throughout their youth, continuously connect and reconnect every young person throughout their community through active learning, volunteerism, and otherwise.
  6. Redo Education. Re-envision the core curriculum of schools to focus on practical, applicable skill-based and knowledge-building learning, rather than large topical swaths that are seemingly devoid of practical applications to students themselves. Student voice should be at the center of ALL education.
  7. Promote In-person Internet. Weave together online identities with in-person identities. With the ubiquity of the Internet today, its increasingly vital that young people move seamlessly within their social networks, whether on the Internet or in real time.
  8. Foster Entrepreneurial Lifestyles. Entrepreneurship is about more than work; its about life. More commonly than ever, society accepts that change is the only constant. Teaching young people to make the most of that is one of the best ways to make youth employable.
  9. Stop Fighting Change. There’s so much resistance to diversity, to people who aren’t white or wealthy or male or straight or educated or accessible to the mainstream. We must stop fighting the impending changes our world inevitably holds for all of us, and instead embrace them ALL. We can guide and move some change, but at the least, we must simply accept it.
  10. Make Lifelong Learning An Accessible Expectation. There is a lot of value to teaching oneself and learning what you want to, when you want to. However, in our increasingly commodified societies we’re making lifelong learning more and more expensive and inaccessible. We should throw the doors everywhere open for everyone, all the day. Andrew Carnegie knew the value of this; we should acknowledge that’s more important today than ever.

Perhaps the most important thing we can do is the first thing on this list: Accept responsibility, because from that place we can change the worldA lot of research and policy work that has been done that supports my contentions; read them for more information.

Regardless of how you see it though, ending discrimination against young people is truly what is needed to make all youth everywhere employable today and in the future.

Adam Fletcher is a speaker on engaging young people in business, education, and communities. He is also the author of several books, including Ending Discrimination Against Young People. Learn more about him by visiting adamfletcher.net.

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