Strategies to tackle the future: the case of youth unemployment

6 April 2018

Think tanks face enormous policy challenges. Few are as complex as youth unemployment. I was invited to speak at the 5th African Think Tank Summit in  Accra, Ghana to offer a few ideas on how think tanks might go about informing youth unemployment policies.

The summit brought together think tanks from across Africa to tackle this complex social, economic and policy issue. My presentation focused not on policy recommendations for governments but rather on strategies for think tanks. Many drew from the lessons that emerged from the On Think Tanks 2018 Conference.+

Why should think tanks care about this?

There are many reasons why think tanks should care about youth unemployment.

  • Reason 1: Because it is a challenge across the world (developing and developed). At the extreme, it is closely linked to radicalisation
  • Reason 2: Because young people are at risk of being left behind
  • Reason 3: Because the solution to youth unemployment carries huge political capital for the think tank that comes up with it
  • Reason 4: Because young people are an untapped audience for think tanks; one that has a huge potential to forward their cause in the future
  • Reason 5: The moral argument: Truth, Justice, Voice

Overall, this is an issue that offers a great opportunity for think tanks to stakeout a piece of territory for themselves.

We know, from research by Andrew Rich, that think tanks that help define the policy problem tend to be better positioned when it comes to defining the solutions. Grappling with this issue offers think tanks the chance to develop credibility on an issue which is likely to play a central role in political discourse for many years to come.

Policy ideas

The summit focused on evidence informed policy recommendations for African policymakers. Unsurprisingly, there are many policy options for governments to explore, such as:+

  • Information on career paths and “return on education” for better informed decision making by families and young people
  • Work with new technological platforms (e.g. Uber) to formalise as default
  • Online/text-based jobsboards to make it easier to search for/advertise jobs and to encourage job search to become more “formal”
  • Technical/vocational secondary education to prepare young people to work (most do not go on to tertiary education)
  • Workplace experience/internships for taxes to encourage companies to offer young people a chance to get a foot into the formal labour market
  • Differentiated labour regimes such as reduced employment costs to encourage companies to hire young people
  • “Personal education accounts” to facilitate continuous retraining and even encourage businesses to offer in-house training
  • Improve the business environment with attention to the needs of young entrepreneurs (especially the most vulnerable)
  • Investments in wellbeing because education, health, security, housing, transport, etc. have an impact on employment opportunities
  • New curricula to focus on transferable skills: social and emotional intelligence, virtual collaboration, foresight, creativity, adaptability, leadership and communications
  • Integrated education and labour policy portfolios

How to promote policy changes to tackle youth unemployment?

Promoting policy change depends on many factors, including the nature of the policy recommendations themselves and the nature of the populations that stand to benefit from them. The case of young people is of particular relevance as it both provides an opportunity and demands that think tanks reflect on their current practices.

1) Bridge the cultural divide

According to King and Crewe in their book, “The Blunders of our Governments“, one of the main causes of policy blunders is the cultural disconnect between those who design policies and those who are supposed to benefit from those policies.

The case of youth unemployment is quite telling. Design and implementation challenges often stem from a dire lack of understanding of the needs and expectations of young people by policymakers.

Think tanks can play a role by helping to translate the needs and expectations of young people into the policy discourse. But they can do more. They can help young people to inform the way policymaking happens to improve their own participation in it.

But, are think tanks capable of reaching out to young people?

They might need to make some changes to how they work:

  • First, they would have to pay greater attention to diversity among their staff: in age, gender and (social, economic and political) background.
  • They could also involve and ask young people to join their organisations, maybe using volunteers or networks.  foraus offers a very interesting model to follow.
  • Fundamentally, they must reach out and communicate with them; in their own terms. There are great lessons from Well Told Story on how to achieve this.
  • And they could help design evidence informed work and career experiences for young people+

2) Think about the future

Think tanks are rather good at using evidence to develop policy recommendations. But evidence refers to what has happened or what is happening. Rarely do we see the introduction of future trends in their work.

Youth unemployment demands that think tanks take the future into account. According to an Oxford study on the Future of Employment (from 2013!) the least safe jobs from AI are:

  • Telemarketer: 99% (Chance of automation);
  • Loan officer: 98%;
  • Cashier: 97%;
  • Paralegal and legal assistant: 94%;
  • Taxi driver: 89%;
  • Fast food cook: 81%.

According to Martin Ford the jobs that will no longer be available in the future have these characteristics: “routine, repetitive and predictable”

But what about rural to urban migration, pressure over public services and housing, global trade trends, etc.? These need to be incorporated into any research on youth unemployment that wishes to be policy relevant.

So what can think tanks do?

  • ­Undertake prospective research: something obvious but not something that most think tanks have the capacity to do.
  • Carryout forward looking studies like ­The Future of Work Review by the Royal Society of Arts.

3) Look at the long-tails and differences

The challenge of youth unemployment largely comes down to the high diversity in the factors affecting unemployment among young people. Most might face similar constraints to joining the labour market but there is a significant minority that is likely to face very unique challenges and they will be harder to help:

  • ­Domestic workers (often very young)
  • ­People with disabilities
  • ­LGBTB
  • ­Women
  • ­Indigenous populations
  • ­The extreme poor
  • ­The urban poor

It must be stressed that any analysis of the situation of young people (and youth unemployment) ought to pay close attention to gender and other differences. To address this, think tanks could:

  • ­Make them and their diffrentiated needs visible (from Ruth Levine’s “moral case for evidence informed policy” who argues for truth, justice, voice) by focusing their research on specific groups or developing ­“youth budget”(such as the Children’s Budget by IDASA)
  • They could also set up issue specific think tanks/programmes. Ben Rogers at the Centre for London argued the need for city centred think tanks at the OTT Conference in 2018. The same argument could be made for a youth focused think tank:

Create, use and share evidence

This is think tanks’ bread and butter. But in this case, the information that needs to be produced and communicated needs to reach new audiences: young people and their families, employers, teachers, etc.

Education and employment decisions are complex. They may define a young person’s life and these are often made by the family or the community rather than by individuals. But information about real costs and returns to education or job opportunities and career paths is lacking – more so for the poorest and most vulnerable.

Think tanks can:

  • ­Build solutions themselves or in partnership. See for example, Ponte en Carrera in Peru, developed by IPAE and the Ministry of Education with the support of CIUP and others. This platform offers prospective students (and their families) information on which careers and universities promise better expected salaries.
  • ­Rethink their communications – what they are planning to do now might not work anymore. But, most importantly, communicating with young people cannot be seen as business as usual.

Work in partnership

Employers can change their recruiting practices (e.g. more formal and transparent, less focus on degrees and more on competencies) and talent management practices (e.g. on the job training, mentoring, etc.) to tackle youth unemployment.

New technological platforms might offer young people opportunities to work formally -if the government works with these platforms.

Education might contribute by undergoing a process of redesign to respond to the real experience of the youth.

If think tanks want to promote these changes, they will have to work with other types of organisation.

They could, therefore:

  • Establish partnerships with young people’s associations, NGOs, the private sector, etc.
  • ­Work closely with the private sector to help them understand the youth
  • ­Involve the private sector or young people in think tank projects and boards
  • ­Explore new approaches to co-design policy solutions.

Be political

Policy changes are necessary to bring about change at any meaningful scale. There is a lot of talk about the potential of entrepreneurship and some agencies have even given up on the idea of promoting the growth of the formal economy and traditional employment. But change, at a meaningful scale, will require policy change.

  • ­Differentiated (and transitory) labour regimes might help young people to join the workforce
  • ­Changes in curricula might lead to new transferable competencies for current and future jobs
  • ­Changes in the secondary and tertiary education policy to incorporate vocational education and professional job placements can support the disadvantaged

All of these are highly political changes and can easily backfire for those who promote them if they are not developed, promoted and implemented properly. Unfortunately, few think tanks are prepared to deal with an increasing complex and aggressive political context. +

The talk lately, especially among many international aid agencies, is that so-called development actors need to act politically. This is incorrect and not enough. To bring about political change one needs to be political (which is not the same as partisan).

It requires think tanks to:

  • ­Make a long term bet on youth unemployment and expect as many (or more) failures as successes
  • ­Develop and nurture partnerships and alliances (build strength in numbers not just arguments)
  • ­Encourage a national conversation/dialogue about the problems and solutions proposed
  • ­Build consensus with the youth
  • ­Inform and support “front line players” –teachers, company bosses- about benefits of reform


If there was ever an issue that think tanks ought to be paying attention to is youth unemployment – and maybe more than that: youth in general.

Either driven by pragmatic or moral arguments, it make sense as a policy focus. But this will require changes in their business models:

  • Reach out to the youth as an audience and support base (and not just an object of study) and study the youth as individuals and not as a single group
  • Reflect on how they undertake research, communicate it and manage the organisation by:
    • ­Looking ahead and incorporating trends in their research
    • ­Communicating through new channels and using new arguments
    • ­Involving more young people and different backgrounds
    • Working with others (and through others) – and not just other think tanks
  • And they have to be political (because, well, they are) and not just act politically.

You can download the presentation here:  What can think tanks do to contribute to tackling youth unemployment in Africa?