What can a university degree and eight years of experience in customer service get you?
For Samantha Ostrov, it scored her a rejection email from construction retailer Home Depot.
Yet in the three-plus years since she graduated from University of King's College with a bachelor's degree in political science, she's struggled to secure stable work. Like many young Canadians, she's battled underemployment, applying for jobs that make little use of her education just to make ends meet.
"It makes for an awkward job interview when you have to address the discrepancy between your degree and the job you are interviewing for," Ostrov, 24, said in an email.
In many countries, youth employment is understood as a pressing domestic issue. But the proper lens is global: From Europe to North America to the Middle East, unemployment among young people has swelled into a veritable epidemic, one that threatens economic growth and social stability in dozens of countries for decades to come. Worldwide, some 75 million workers under age 25 were jobless last year, according to the International Labour Office, an increase of more than 4 million compared to 2007.
The crisis is altering family dynamics, as parents find themselves caring for grown children and as unemployed young people defer starting their own families. It is reinforcing austerity, as governments struggle to finance unemployment benefits and large numbers of would-be young consumers find themselves hunkering down in joblessness. Above all, it is assailing the psyches of young people who have been told that education is the pathway to a more prosperous life only to find that their degrees are no antidote to a bleak job market.
"Youth unemployment is dramatic," according to José María Aznar, the former prime minister of Spain, who spoke at a recent conference in New York. Fifty-six percent of would-be Spanish workers under 25 are jobless. "It's jeopardizing the opportunities for future prosperity and growth."
The profound shortage of working opportunities for young people around the globe is largely the result of the synchronized financial crisis that emerged in the United States and then spread to Europe, generating economic strains on virtually every shore. Youth unemployment now holds the potential to exacerbate deep-seated social and political tensions while yielding new conflicts in an age of scarcity.
The Huffington Post has deployed its global resources in an effort to capture the scope of this crisis and its many permutations, forging a collective report drawn from newsrooms at international editions in seven countries. This story is intended as the beginning of a sustained conversation about the consequences of youth unemployment, examining the pitfalls and also possible ways out. Future stories will spotlight programs that may yield improvements, as well as the entrepreneurial spirit that is emerging as young people confront pressure to make their own opportunities.
This report focuses on an affected group of particular importance: those like Samantha Ostrov who managed to graduate from college yet still find themselves jobless. The costs of this disappointment are crushing for the young graduates themselves, particularly those bearing student loan debt. But it's society that bears the full costs: From Canada to the United States to Spain, experts warn that the side-lining of millions of would-be consumers is placing a substantial drag on economic growth, diminishing prosperity for all.
Ostrov is merely one pixel in the picture of youth employment in Canada, as those between the ages of 15 and 24 continue to fight for jobs that older Canadians are increasingly hanging onto in the face of their own economic uncertainties.
Canada's economy has braved the global recession better than many others. But last year, 14.3 percent of Canadian youth were unemployed, up from 11.2 percent in 2007 and double the current national jobless rate of 7.2 percent, according to Statistics Canada. That amounts to the biggest gap between youth and adult unemployment rates since 1977.
More Canadians are enrolled in post-secondary education today than ever before, yet a report this summer from CIBC, one of the country's biggest banks, warned that youth unemployment is worsened by universities that keep churning out graduates with no job experience.
"While more education is positive, increasingly, students are completing their education without any work experience and are more likely to be caught in the no job–no experience, and no experience–no job cycle," said the study's author, Benjamin Tal.
Once they have a job, youth in Canada must also face the fact that due to seniority and experience differences they are twice as likely as older counterparts to be laid off.
After several periods of unemployment over the past five years -- some stretching as long as seven months -- Ostrov now works on a casual basis as a ward clerk at a hospital. But she says she plans to follow many of her friends nearly 5,000 kilometers west to Alberta in search of better opportunities.
Her dream is to find a career that matches her skills, and combines her passion for international politics with written communication. Her parents didn't go to university, and she hopes to show them that the years she spent in school were valuable.
"It's important to me that I apply my degree in the future," she says, noting that her parents "took a risk with me that they never took for themselves as young adults."
Ostrov's parents paid for her first two years of university, and she then relied on loans to complete her degree. Since graduation, loan payments have become her most stressful expense. "I've always understood the reality of a loan, but I never anticipated how the struggle for consistent work would prolong the repayment process," she says.
The risk she took in going to university adds another layer to her worries and her aspirations. "I want to prove that it was worth it," she says.
In the French city of Montpellier, Thomas Pallot frets that his future now seems tainted. He is only 25 years old and recently embarked on a career as computer technician. But for the last two years, he has been unemployed.
Pallot has a diploma from an advanced vocational school, a credential that might have once inoculated him from this fate. Today that degree merely places him amid the teeming ranks of a so-called Lost Generation: He is one of millions of young people worldwide who have emerged from college with diplomas only to fall into joblessness and its attendant hardships -- financial trouble, despair and a nebulous sense of having lost their way.
"To grow as a person, you have to have a job," Pallot tells Le Huffington Post, speaking as if this were self-evident. "Before, I talked about my work with the people close to me, and now I have nothing to talk about."
In the United States, in the Pacific Northwest city of Portland, Oregon, 23-year-old Brette Jackson grapples with downgraded expectations. She and her parents accepted $50,000 in debt as the price of a program that gained her a degree in fashion design. It was supposed be the launchpad of a rewarding career. Instead, she's subsisting on her latest part-time job -- manning a supermarket deli counter -- while relying on government-furnished food stamps.
"I don't think the economy is going to be able to continue to function as it has been, with this becoming the norm," she tells The Huffington Post. "It used to be that college graduates were the ones who were buying new cars and new homes, taking out mortgages. Now it's completely reversed itself, and we can't afford to do those things any more."
Six years have passed since Italy's then-Minister of Economy Tommaso Padoa-Schioppa provoked a controversy by speaking of the "bamboccioni," or "big babies," affixing a label to the many young Italians forced to remain at home with their parents. Today, some 40 percent of Italian workers under 30 are unemployed, according to recent data, a level roughly double that of five years ago.
"I'm laughing, but I should be crying," says Luciana Di Virgilio, a 27-year-old Italian industrial designer. "In our trade journals, it's common to read the phrase 'young designer.' And then you see they're writing about nearly 50-year-old men and women. Here you're still considered young at 30, whereas in the rest of Europe 23- and 24-year-olds are already independent, and often in positions of responsibility."
In Almeria, a city on the Spanish Mediterranean, 21-year-old Marta Mullor struggles to accept that she still lives with her parents, even after completing her college degree in translation and interpretation. Since graduating in June, she has applied for some 75 jobs per week, she says, while receiving a disheartening number of responses: zero.
"Last year I would never have imagined that I would still be living at my parents' place," she tells El Huffington Post. "I thought something would come my way."
Nearly 27 percent of unemployed Spaniards have college degrees, according to Spain's General Workers Union. With so many graduates out of work, a degree can sometimes seem a liability, a marker that identifies a job applicant as ill-suited for whatever modest position may be available. Many well-educated young Spaniards now maintain two résumés: one that details their full background, for jobs related to their studies, and another that omits a degree or two, so as not to overwhelm potential employers seeking to fill a lower-level job.
In Sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East, the presence of large number of young people unable to find jobs that match their training adds fuel to long-standing ethnic and religious conflicts while sowing political discord. The youth unemployment rate hit 39 percent in Egypt last year, as the country grappled with the fallout from the Arab Spring.
In France, nearly one in four would-be workers under 25 is now officially unemployed, according to the latest government figures. In Great Britain, some 960,000 people in the same age group are unemployed, or about one of every five. Overall, some 26 million Europeans aged 16 to 24 are today searching for a job, according to recent government estimates.
The problem has even become a spiritual issue: Pope Francis recently declared that youth unemployment amounts to "one of the most serious evils that afflicts the world these days," putting it alongside "the loneliness of the old."
"The young need work and hope but have neither one nor the other, and the problem is they don't even look for them any more," Pope Francis said in an interview with the Italian newspaper La Repubblica. "They have been crushed by the present. You tell me: Can you live crushed under the weight of the present? Without a memory of the past and without the desire to look ahead to the future by building something, a future, a family? Can you go on like this? This, to me, is the most urgent problem that the Church is facing."
'HOW AM I GOING TO GET EXPERIENCE?'
In the Spanish city of Cáceres, 24-year-old Ester Martinez has grown accustomed to looking for whatever jobs are available, never mind her chosen career path. She applies at retail shops and supermarkets, where she touts her tech savvy and her language skills. She speaks English, French and passable Italian.
What she pointedly does not mention -- not on her résumé, and certainly not in job interviews -- is her considerable education. She steers around the fact that she's working on her doctorate and already has a master's degree in addition to her nursing degree. She knows these details may distinguish her as another over-educated young Spaniard ill-suited for a bleak job market.
Overall, some 2.5 million Spanish workers are employed in sectors other than those for which they studied, according to the General Workers Union. And this dynamic only appears to reinforce itself: As recent graduates take whatever jobs they can find, they have no way of amassing experience in their chosen fields.
Alberto Peza, a 26-year-old resident of Valencia trained in workplace safety, now sells sporting goods part-time, earning about 350 euros (or $472) a month. He feels impotent. He feels stuck.
"How am I going to get experience if no one will give me a chance to show my skills and pursue my goals?" he asks.
Some are now creating their own work experience. After five months of searching for a job on the strength of his art history degree, 24-year-old Antonio Jimenez opted to open a bar in his neighborhood in Valladolid. "I had to do something," he says.
That decision made him something of a pioneer: Only 4 percent of unemployed young Spaniards opt to start their own businesses, according to the 2012 Report on Youth in Spain.
Jimenez didn't have a single euro to invest, so his parents helped him out. "Getting financing to start a business in Spain is impossible," he says. "On top of that, the paperwork you have to do is so overwhelming that you sometimes think of just giving up."
And what do his parents think of this career trajectory -- their son's art history degree as a prerequisite for postgraduate studies in serving cocktails?
"That's life," says his father, Antonio Jiménez Laso. "I would like to see him work in something more fulfilling, but this is better than being at home, depressed and bored."
Others are simply giving up on working in Spain. Some disappear from the statistics because they stop actively looking for jobs. Some choose to keep studying, an increasingly difficult alternative for those with limited financial means: Tuitions in Madrid, for example, rose 20 to 30 percent last year. This year, 20,000 students who applied were left without scholarships, according to the Socialist Party, Spain's main opposition party, and the Conference of Rectors of Spanish Universities.
Large numbers of youth are now emigrating. Since the crisis began, the number of young Spaniards venturing abroad has increased 41 percent, according to the National Institute of Statistics.
Germany, France and the United Kingdom continue to be the top destinations for these young workers, but Ecuador is rising in the ranks. The small South American country has offered more than 5,000 jobs to college-educated Spaniards this year.
Javier Rincón, 27, has spent the last two years in Berlin, working as an analytics and optimization manager. He left Spain because "the conditions were not acceptable," he said. He has no thought of returning.
"Every time I go back, I'm more surprised by the sad state of my country," he says. "I can see a clear decline in culture, politics, economy."
Brette Jackson never imagined it this way. Three years out from her college graduation, she's working part-time at a Portland supermarket, keeping herself fed with the help of food stamps.
Back when she enrolled at the Art Institute of Seattle five years ago -- which is to say, back when she and her parents signed off on her $50,000 in loans -- this was not among the outcomes described by the admissions counselors.
"They gave out a lot of statistics," Jackson recalls. "'This many of our students get jobs in their fields, and they're making X amount of money every year.' Those numbers are not necessarily accurate."
Since she got her associate's degree from the for-profit school in the of spring 2010, Jackson has rarely known full-time work that lasted more than a few months. The jobs she's managed to secure have been well below her expectations -- the supermarket job in Portland, a short-term holiday retail position at a Macy's department store in Seattle and a stint working as a seamstress for a temp agency.
The Great Recession and its far from vigorous recovery have been especially punishing for young Americans. The unemployment rate for 20- to 24-year-old workers is about 13 percent, nearly double the overall unemployment rate, according to the most recent data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
A college degree is generally considered the way to avoid joblessness, but the unemployment rate for college graduates younger than 24 is 8.8 percent, up from 5.7 percent in 2007, according to a recent Economic Policy Institute analysis of federal census and labor data.
Young college graduates still fare much better than those with only a high school diploma, but the EPI analysis found that large numbers of young people with college degrees are settling for jobs below their skill levels.
Here, another measure comes in handy -- the so-called underemployment rate, which adds to the jobless those who have accepted part-time positions for lack of available full-time work and those who have simply stopped looking. The underemployment rate for college graduates is now 18.3 percent, up from 9.9 percent in 2007.
"A large swath of these young, highly educated workers either have a job but cannot attain the hours they need, or want a job but have given up looking for work," the EPI report found.
Jackson hasn't given up, but she is beginning to worry that her quest is futile. All the while, her mountain of debt constrains not just her future but that of her entire family.
Her mother, Laura Rupe-Jackson, is a school bus driver and pre-school worker who carries about $35,000 of the total $50,000 debt burden. Jackson's younger sister, Julianna, is a high school senior. An honors student, she dreams of majoring in astrophysics at a top-tier university. For her mother, this prospect brings excitement and anxiety in equal measure: How can she justify taking on more debt to finance college for another daughter given the first's experience?
"She has the grades and the drive to do great things, which is frustrating for us," Rupe-Jackson says of Julianna. "We are still just in deferment on the parent loans, and really close to bankruptcy right now. The whole idea, it just scares me."
The family has held off on basic house repairs for years, including a roof that needs replacing. When Jackson got in a car accident last year -- not her fault, her mother says -- they couldn't afford the insurance deductible needed to replace the totaled vehicle.
If only she and her family had asked more questions back when her daughter was deciding to enroll at the art institute. This is the thought that keeps Rupe-Jackson up at night.
Jackson had taken her time to decide where to go to college, contemplating what sort of program would make best use of her skills. In high school, she had sometimes made costumes for her friends -- usually Japanese anime characters. So her mother suggested she look into art school.
The Art Institute in Seattle is part of a chain of 50 for-profit institutions across the nation. Looking back now, Jackson and her mother are both struck by how the admissions interview for the school felt more like a marketing a pitch. She was basically let in on the spot, they recall.
"It was 'OK, here's the student loan package. We need to hurry up and get you enrolled,'" Rupe-Jackson says. "For my daughter, it was, 'Oh yay, I want to go to school, and I can start right away.' But it just didn't seem right to me when I thought about it afterward."
When Jackson showed up at her graduation gala, she got the first sense that things were less than advertised. The gala had been billed as an industry event where she would present her portfolio to dozens of potential employers.
"No one from the fashion industry showed up to our show," she recalls. "I didn't hand out any résumés."
Over the following months, the career services office sent sporadic job listings her way, but many were for unpaid internships. Others were listings she could have found by herself online, she says.
Desperate for income, she worked shifts at Macy's during the 2010 holiday season, but was laid off after the rush. She applied to other department stores, hoping that more retail experience would put her on a path for fashion-design gigs.
But many of those employers sought more retail experience. After being out of work for almost a year, she landed another temporary retail job at a See's Candies store in the Portland area for the 2011 holiday season.
When that job ended, she got in touch with a temp agency that needed seamstresses to repair and sew labels on lab coats. Hired on, she hoped she was finally on her way to something stable. But late last year she was laid off again -- after she trained a new batch of temp workers to do her old job.
By then, she had moved into her own apartment. "I was frantic to get a new job," she says. "I had bills to pay."
So she took whatever she could get. She took the job at the supermarket. She now works between 20 and 40 hours a week. With food stamps and paychecks, she gets by, but she can't look ahead.
So many of her friends face the same predicament, she says. They've all begun to question the basic premise that a college degree is the gateway to a middle-class life.
"For a lot of my peers, it's just become the norm," she says. "You have this mind-boggling amount of debt, not really knowing how or when you're going to pay it off. You just anticipate that it's this debt you're going to have for the rest of your life."
NO LIFE PLAN
Across a continent and an ocean, Thomas Pallot sums up his own reality using strikingly similar words. "I get by," he says. "I have no choice."
What once seemed a reasonable aspiration now seems like a moon shot: He wants a job as a computer technician, one that matches his qualifications and pays perhaps as much as 1,500 euros after taxes each month.
Back when he was nearing the end of his studies, "I never imagined it would be so hard," he says. "But when I saw the economic situation deteriorate, I immediately understood it was going to be difficult."
To make ends meet, Pallot takes assignments from temporary employment agencies. One day, he distributes flyers. The next, he lifts boxes. He does what he can to cover his bills, working about a third of the time. He lives on 580 euros per month, 300 of which goes to pay his rent.
As in much of the developed world, in France a degree is supposed to provide some insurance against hard times. To a considerable extent, it has. The unemployment rate among French workers under 25 is just below 25 percent, according to the government; among young workers with Pallot's credentials -- a high school baccalaureate diploma plus two years of further study -- about 10 percent are unemployed.
But those figures come as no consolation to those struggling to find work. Despite his degree, and despite a host of government programs aimed at attacking youth unemployment -- it was the No. 1 priority of presidential candidate François Hollande during his successful 2012 campaign -- Pallot remains on the outside.
"I hear every day about young people, training plans," he says. "But I don't see anything behind it."
He misses not only the stability and ease of a regular job, but also the activity and social interaction. What's hardest is the void that defines his life, he says. With his friends, he avoids the topic of his job search. So, too, with his parents.
"They pressure me -- that's normal," he says. "They made sacrifices so that I could have everything when I was a child."
He can't contemplate having his own children. "For the moment it's out of the question," he says. "I have no plan for the future, no life plan; all that counts is stabilizing my situation."
Pallot no longer expects much help from his local unemployment office. "I had three different counsellors in one year," he says. "How could we be getting effective support? What's the logic?"
What training exists is systematically denied to him, he says, because of his age: At 25, he's near the start of what was supposed to be his working life, yet old enough to fall to the bottom of the waiting list for government help.
He hasn’t lost hope, he says, and even finds himself giving advice to those in the same predicament: Be patient, keep your hopes up, stay active, work your connections and, above all, "get as much support as you can."
Following that prescription is harder than dispensing it. Pallot thinks of himself as a hard worker, capable and pragmatic, but two years of going without work is undermining his sense of value. "I feel I'm projecting the image of someone with no willpower, someone who is waiting for something to happen and doesn't see anything happening," he says.
It's a state of mind that lends itself to bad habits. Exhaustion and frustration take over. "There are times you do nothing," he says, "because you're at the end of your rope."
THE RIGHT PUZZLE PIECE
Damilola Odelola wants to be a writer, lecturer and educator. She envisions setting up workshops to talk about feminism, African literature, social justice and religion. She sees herself writing plays and poems that change people's lives.
But like hundreds of thousands of young people in Great Britain, Odelola, 21, has been forced to put such aspirations on hold given a chronically weak economy and rising university tuition costs. She is out of work.
She was accepted at the prestigious School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London and planned to pursue a master's degree, but she had to defer her entry when fees skyrocketed.
Instead, she's trying to increase her profile through writing, blogging and taking on internships, while looking for a job that can keep her going while still letting her chase her dream.
"I'm halfway between applying for anything and being picky," she says. She fears being stuck in a job she doesn't enjoy out of desperation. But she also fears being left with no job at all.
In her borough, Lambeth, the 10 percent unemployment rate is one of the highest in the capital, and far above the national average of 7.7 percent.
Odelola searches online for media and education jobs, and she's signed on with a recruitment agency. She receives a jobseeker's allowance while she looks for work through her local Job Centre. It can be a grueling task, applying for job after job with little success, and too often without hearing back. But she strives to stay positive.
"I've learned to understand that being rejected doesn't mean I'm a failure, it just means that I wasn't the right puzzle piece," she says. "I'm a very hopeful person and I believe that everything happens for a reason, and the reason may not be clear now, but when it is I'll look back and think, 'Yeah, that needed to happen.'"
She tries not to forget the sacrifices her family has made to help her during her unemployment. Her mother has taken time off from work to take her to seminars and financially supported her efforts to become a writer.
"We rely on each other, and I am needed at home," Odelola says. "But she has made it clear that if I need to go somewhere else in order to see the fruit of my aspiration, then she'll be happy to send me on my way."
Her social life has been dented, but Odelola is grateful to have friends who understand and accommodate her situation. "I don't really get hassled to come out all the time, unless it's free," she says. "And my really close friends will come to see me and bring me edible gifts, which is never a bad thing."
She rejects the "lazy youth" stereotype that has grown along with the ranks of Britain's young and unemployed.
"My generation is very active," she says. "We enjoy being busy and doing stuff, we have bred a lot of entrepreneurs and self-starters. Many of us have begun building our own brands and making a name for ourselves, because nobody else will."
But she worries that youth unemployment is now so established that it has insinuated itself into the basic understanding of British reality.
"You have to assume that unemployment and youth are not our government's priority right now," she says. "I do understand that it is also a sign of our economic times -- we've been in like 22 recessions in the last three years, and it's getting pretty ridiculous now. Nobody knows anything and we're all just watching our economy crumble."
Mohamed Omar reported from Toronto, Peter S. Goodman and Chris Kirkham from New York, and Stanislas Kraland from Paris. With contributions from Rodrigo Carretero in Madrid, Charlie Lindlar in London, Flavio Bini in Rome and Jillian Berman in New York.