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Will Youth Unemployment Demonstrations Come to America?

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With the youth unemployment rate in this country higher than 20 percent, we can be thankful that angry young Americans are not marching in the streets like their peers in many countries in Europe, the Middle East and north Africa. Perhaps the biggest reason that we haven't yet seen protests here is that, for now, young citizens have faith in our democratic processes.

Our youth are under deep stress. This spring, more than 1.6 million students graduated from American colleges and universities. Many will simply join the swollen ranks of the unemployed. After taking on enormous debt to finance their studies, many are ending up competing for unpaid internships or working in low-paying jobs for which their education is irrelevant.

We're violating the tacit pact we made with them: If they were industrious, law-abiding and diligent students, their lives would be prosperous.

The U.S. isn't alone in violating this pact. According to the International Labor Organization, youth unemployment in most of the world is stuck at about around 20 percent. "Young people [are] nearly three times as likely as adults to be unemployed," says the ILO. In Spain more than 40 percent of young people are unemployed, in Italy it's 28 percent and in France the rate is more than 20 percent.

In the UK, many young people are simply giving up. There, about 40 percent of all unemployed are age 16 to 24, which means almost 1 million young adults are jobless. More than half of the 18- to 25-year-olds questioned in a recent survey said they were thinking of emigrating because of poor job prospects.

Fortunately, few American youth are looking to leave. This is despite the inability of President Barack Obama's administration to fulfill their expectations. At the time of the 2008 election, America's youth were riding high. They were excited about the future. They embraced our democratic processes and allied themselves with the candidate of hope. They wanted a political leadership that put the needs of ordinary citizens ahead of powerful elites. They wanted better prospects for landing meaningful employment. They wanted to be part of the system and not left on the outside looking in.

Since then we've watched the collapse of the global economy. During the meltdown of the financial services sector, no expense was spared to resuscitate the health of Wall Street. Most of the financial services industry was able to bounce back, with billions of dollars in bonuses being subsequently awarded to investment and banking executives. What followed was the so-called "jobless recovery," leaving millions of Americans without jobs. Suddenly, however, many politicians say the government can't afford to spend money on job creation programs. Politicians in countries such as Spain or Greece are saying the same thing to their unemployed, but their citizens are taking to the streets in anger. In America, this isn't the case. Our youth still appear to have faith in democratic processes. But how long will this last?

It's true that in practice Americans have a more direct say in choosing their elected officials than voters in most other countries. Using primaries to choose candidates allows for groundswell political movements to make an impact. Party bosses cannot simply decree who the candidates will be. On the Republican side, we saw the Tea Party win many nomination battles in 2010. For Democrats, in 2008 Hillary Clinton was overwhelmingly the favorite candidate of that party's establishment. But young Democratic party supporters, using social media, rose up to overwhelm party insiders and secure the nomination for Obama.

Jonathan Chavez, co-founder of SocialSphere, a social media consulting company, says recent research shows that "young people, while palpably frustrated with the current government, have not abandoned their faith in the efficacy of having their voice heard within the system." Sixty-two percent of young adults disagree with the statement "It doesn't really matter to me who the President is," compared to just 13% that agree. Additionally, 42 percent disagree with the statement "Politics is not relevant to my life right now," compared to just 24% that agree. Chavez says that "These numbers have slipped some since 2008, but they still point towards a general view that political engagement, when properly undertaken, can make a difference."

But we would be foolish to think this will go on indefinitely. Historically youth radicalize when disparities between expectations and reality persist. As we've seen in other countries, today social media is an unprecedented tool for finding out what is going, informing others and organizing collective action. Young people need jobs, and we shouldn't wait for mass protests before taking serious action.

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