Dear Holy Father,
It has been about 42 years since my last confession, but that’s not why I am writing.
I read with great interest your recent Encyclical Letter on climate change, which spoke so poignantly about how we must all find a way to help heal our badly wounded earth that we have ruthlessly plundered for so long now. You probably don’t have time for a sequel before your road trip to the United States, but please consider at your earliest convenience taking up the long ignored global youth unemployment crisis which now is reaching epic proportions.
(As far as an encyclical title, something in Latin about the perils of wasting our planet’s youth through prolonged idleness would be good.)
In your current encyclical you write compellingly about a “real social decline” and “the silent rupture of the bonds of integrity and social cohesion” that is part and parcel of a world situation where “whatever is fragile like the environment, is defenseless before the interests of a deified market which becomes the only rule.”
I respectfully submit that these very same selfish and short sighted capital market forces that result in the wholesale ruination of our natural environment are also ignoring the wasting of a generation. Predictably, some of this idle youth cohort turn to gangs and violent extremist movements for the social cohesion and purpose that supporting a family through honest labor can provide. Many of them are homeless or are brutally exploited in the global sex trade. In many parts of the world, the lack of gainful employment has already helped destabilize several nation states and continues to threaten many more. According to a 2014 United Nations report “the labour market outlook for young people worsened in nearly every region of the world” with the largest increase occurring in the Middle East with more than one in four of young people in the labor force without a job.
Around the world, the UN reports that 74.5 million young people ages 15 to 24 were unemployed in 2013, a 700,000 increase over the previous year. Globally the UN pegs the labor force participation rate for young people in the larger 15 to 29 age cohort at just 47.4 percent, still 2 percent below where it was before the 2008 global financial crisis. If I remember correctly, from my few years in parochial school, anything below a 65 percent was marked a failure. If our 21st century global market capitalist system can’t even generate employment opportunities for most of the young people coming of age, shouldn’t that also be considered a failure?
Back in 2011, it was the 26-year-old Tunisian fruit seller Mohamed Bouazizi’s self-immolation that inaugurated the Arab Spring and gave voice to a generation looking for a way to support themselves and their families. Bouazizi’s modest fruit stand had provided for his mother, his uncle and five brothers, until the local authorities decided to confiscate his wares and repeatedly beat him when he protested for their return. Forget violent jihad, these millions of millennials just wanted a job.
Tragically, the wars we are waging to combat terrorism seem only to be proliferating the very terror we say we want to stop and in the process are making wider swaths of the world inhospitable to the peaceful commerce needed to sustain civil society and family life.
Time really is of the essence for a whole lot of reasons. “The share of young people (aged 15 to 29) that are neither in employment, nor in education or training (NEET) has risen in 30 out of the 40 countries for which data are available,” according to the UN’s ILO Report 2014, titled “Global Employment Trends - Risk of a Jobless Recovery.” In Mexico, there are more than 7 million of these idle young souls now dubbed “ninis” -- short for "ni trabaja, ni estudia ni recibe formación," or "not in employment, education or training" -- a total of one in every five people in the 15 to 29 age cohort.
But it's not just in places like the Mid-east and Mexico that we see the sidelining of our young people, when creating a work history is so critical to their, and by extension, our own future success. According to U.S. Department of Labor statistics, back in 1989, the labor force participation rate for the entire 16 to 24 year old age bracket was 77.5 percent. By last summer it had dropped to 60.5 percent. “The summer labor force participation rate of youth had been declining for many years,” according to the US Department of Labor statistical analysis.
These trends are even worse for American young people of color and represent a full blown crisis with generational consequences. While for white young workers labor force engagement was at 63.2 percent, their African-American peers labor force participation rate was just 52.9 percent. For Hispanics 56.2 percent were in the grouping that includes people that are working or looking for a job. Just 45.8 percent of young Asians fell into that category.
Research shows that the longer young people are kept out of the labor market the harder it is for them to break into it, with prospects for life time earning power significantly reduced.
For countries like the United States this is going to make it that much harder to live up to the social contracts they have with their baby boomers. For nations, still fending for the basics like potable water, the lack of work for their young people makes them vulnerable to failed nation status or to the mass migration of their children to other countries for the chance of finding work. That in turn puts additional downward wage pressure on the places where they end up.
And yet, as you pointed out in your climate change encyclical, where there is life we can have hope. With each new day we have the chance to find the courage to turn the page on ways of thinking that no longer serve our long term collective interests.
By committing to sacrifice to do what’s truly required to confront the ecological and youth employment crises we will find the seeds for easing both.
As it turns out healing the planet; restoring our wetlands, community based sustainable farming, re-building our once great cities, energy conservation, and bringing potable water to the 750 million people still without it, are all very labor intensive.
But the time for conferences is long gone. There has all already been too much wasted in waiting.