Billions of people across the world are in need of and demanding a better globalisation – one that puts the economy to work for people and not the other way round. The financial crash exposed just how detached the global economy has become from our values – a misalignment that is most pronounced in the world’s response to the global epidemic of youth unemployment.
The promise of globalisation is being betrayed as rates of joblessness climb to historic highs across the Middle East, Europe, America and sub-Saharan Africa. The window of opportunity is closing on millions of young people – yet I see little evidence that we have thought through how we can create the jobs that will deal with today’s political instability and economic stagnation. Failure to do so is for me not simply a political but also a moral failure, because it cannot be right that a generation’s chances be stolen before their life’s journey has really begun. Nor can it be right that we should stand by and let that happen when such a result is so readily avoidable.
One of my favourite images in poetry comes from Thomas Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard”, when he imagines beneath the gravestones “some mute inglorious Milton” – a person of huge hidden talents who was never given the chance to show what they could do: “Full many a flower is born to blush unseen,/ And waste its sweetness on the desert air.”
What brought me into politics was my anger at the injustices that prevented people from making the most of their lives – and these injustices are at their most acute in the case of the life chances of young people. That is not because their lives matter more than the lives of others, but rather because years “missed” from work early in life are harder to recover from. This is a process economists call scarring – whereby a generation of school leavers or university graduates fail to find jobs, are soon overtaken by newer graduates with fresher skills, and end up falling further and further behind for the rest of their lives.
In recent months, there have been stirrings of resistance as young people the world over show that they are no longer prepared to tolerate a global economic order that is failing them so badly. The uprisings in Egypt and elsewhere in the Middle East show protest wearing a very youthful face. The reasons for this are obvious when we consider the figures. Two-thirds of Egypt’s population is under 30 – and young people make up roughly 90 per cent of the country’s jobless total. Youth unemployment has hit 30 per cent in Tunisia. The number is even higher – 45 per cent – in Algeria. By 2020 there will be an estimated 50 million young Arab workers without jobs.
Across most of Africa, too, there is a youth unemployment catastrophe. The continent will soon 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 $1.25 a day. Yet these headline figures, however shocking, do not tell the human or societal cost of youth unemployment: the tragic waste of potential, the damage to families and communities, and the colossal financial burden on societies.
The impact is also felt closer to home, with industrialised countries experiencing large spikes in worklessness among young people; in both Europe and the US, one young person in five is looking for a job. In my own constituency, Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath, the impact is all too obvious. A community that worked hard to recover from the destruction of its mining industry is now experiencing a crisis of confidence that may soon rival the deindustrialisation of the 1980s; head teachers in the area tell me that teenagers are now asking why they should study hard for their exams or university entrance when there will be no local jobs waiting for them.
Going for growth
But it doesn’t need to be this way. In developing and developed countries alike, education is the key to giving young people the skills they need to be successful in a modern economy. As Nelson Mandela wrote in his autobiography: “Education is the great engine of personal development. It is through education that the daughter of a peasant can become a doctor.” For that reason, I was delighted to accept an invitation from the Global Campaign for Education – an organisation that brings together some of the world’s leading NGOs, trade unions and campaigners in this field – to convene, in the company of the activist Graça Machel, Mandela’s wife, a “high-level panel” to promote the cause of education throughout the world. In that capacity, I have authored a report* on education and growth to argue the case for a global push on education.
The case, I believe, is compelling. It is built on the twin pillars of ethics and economics: ethics because it is unfair that so many young people are being denied – through no fault of their own – the opportunity to develop their talents and are condemned to poverty, and economics because this waste of human capital is grossly economically inefficient.
New research presented in the report shows that a renewed push towards the Millennium Development Goal of quality basic primary education for all the world’s children by 2015 could increase per capita income growth in the poorest countries by 2 per cent over projected levels. That would be good news for developing countries and would make a big difference to the fight against global poverty – but it would be good news, too, for western economies. People are often surprised to learn that sub-Saharan Africa is now a trillion-dollar economy and that it grew faster than India and Brazil between 2000 and 2010. In an era when both Europe and America appear set for sluggish growth in the short term, we need to do everything we can to support the development of alternative poles of growth in the global economy – poles that can boost global demand for our goods and services. Tackling youth unemployment in developing countries and addressing it in the developed nations are, therefore, two sides of the same coin.
As Professor Michael Spence shows in his latest book, The Next Convergence, future growth will not inevitably create the millions of jobs we need. And, looking to the future, I realise that to be unemployed without a skill is to be as disarmed as the labourer standing on a street corner in the 1930s. So I believe we should also focus policies forensically on what will create the highest number of jobs for young people across the world.
That approach has a number of implications. First, we must increase investment in education and skills at primary, secondary and tertiary levels. Parents throughout the world recognise the huge value of education, and often make great sacrifices to ensure that their children have the opportunity to go to school; the world must now match their aspirations.
We need to raise both the number of children in school (it is a scandal that today there are nearly 70 million children missing from school around the world) and the quality of education they receive, so that training is targeted to the growth areas in the global economy – services, high-end manufacturing, science and green technologies. We know that the size of the global middle class is going to explode – from a billion people at present to three billion in the next 20 years – and that only those young people with advanced learning, capable of providing niche goods and services, are going to be able to reap the full benefit of the surge in demand.
There is a danger that Africa and developing countries will undergo national “scarring”; the current global digital divide could become self-reinforcing, with children in the poorest countries locked out of new opportunities to gain the skills in information and communications technology that are vital for future employment and economic growth. I am determined that they should not miss out, so I am working on a number of initiatives to integrate Africa more closely into a globalised world, serving on the board of the World Wide Web Foundation and bringing people together to explore an Africa Fund to drive inward investment.
Second, we need to develop a more sophisticated understanding of what modern education means. Young people of today will not be taught the same things or in the same ways as previous generations. Mobile, online and distance learning are all creating greater access to resources than ever before. I am much inspired, for example, by the hugely imaginative proposals of John Sexton, president of New York University, who wants to open up access to his world-class institution to people around the world – not only by establishing campuses in different countries across the globe, but also by enabling internet-taught students to move into formal university learning with places at NYU.
Third, I believe we should be thinking imaginatively about how to redistribute the supply of workers in public services. If the world is going to meet the Millennium Development Goal on education, for instance, we need to train almost two million more teachers a year. At the same time, however, there are teachers in the developed countries unable to find work because of government cuts. So I propose the establishment of a Teach the World network, based on the Teach for America project in the US and Britain’s own Teach First. I have already spoken to Rahul Gandhi, general secretary of the Indian National Congress, about a start in his country, where Teach for 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 huge rise in teaching standards across the globe.
Head and heart
Fourth, I believe other countries can learn a lot from New Labour’s New Deal for the young unemployed. We were successful in driving down youth unemployment in the UK, not just because we were willing to invest, but also because we were prepared to back rights with responsibilities. If the world comes together with a global plan for jobs, we must expect young people to fulfil their duty to work. The same dynamic should operate between aid donors and the governments of developing countries. The developed world must fulfil the pledges it has made to realise the promise of Education for All but, in return, developing countries, too, must do more to support education and training for young people – especially girls.
A renewed focus on education in poor countries is the right thing to do by way of meeting our moral obligations – but it is also a hard-headed investment in human capital. The economic case for investment in physical infrastructure – roads, ports and airports – is widely accepted. The case for investing in human infrastructure is just as compelling. The Commission on Growth and Development carried out a review of developing countries that have succeeded in sustaining high growth over a period of 25 years or more since 1950, and concluded that “every country that sustained high growth for long periods put substantial effort into schooling its citizens and deepening its human capital”. Both the east Asian “tiger economies” (from the 1960s onwards) and the US (from the start of the 20th century) followed this pattern, pulling ahead of their rivals in education before doing so economically.
The twin problems of youth unemployment and global education comprise a rare but happy instance in politics where head and heart pull in the same direction. All we need now is the will to do something about them.
Gordon Brown was prime minister from 2007 to 2010. Download his report “Education for All: Beating Poverty, Unlocking Prosperity” at gordonandsarahbrown.com