ANKARA — Twenty-five-year-old Fatih, a graduate of economics from Istanbul’s Marmara University, remains jobless despite his degree from the respected college and several internships at corporate businesses during his studies. Like hundreds of thousands of other university graduates in Turkey, he is grappling with an uncertain future in a country mired in economic turmoil, which the COVID-19 pandemic has only worsened.
Fatih says long working hours and low salaries have led him to quit the jobs he landed after graduation, and his search for a new one has proved equally disappointing. “I’m looking for a job, but reluctantly. [Employers] are offering terms incompatible with human dignity,” he told Al-Monitor. “I’m currently designing websites for friends to make a living. If an opportunity emerges, I’d like to build my future in Europe or the United States,” he said.
The problem of youth unemployment is increasingly ossifying in Turkey and, unless urgent measures are taken, the country risks major problems of social cohesion down the road as the psychosocial well-being of young people decline amid material hardship and despair. Essentially, Turkey needs to rethink how abreast its young people are of 21st-century professional skills instead of imbuing them with a false sense of employment guarantee in the form of degrees from universities of dubious academic credentials, which have mushroomed in recent years.
The most recent figures by the Turkish Statistical Institute show that the jobless rate in the 15-24 age group has reached nearly 25%, while the overall rate stands at 12.7%. Youth unemployment is the highest among university graduates at 21% or 961,000 people, according to the Platform of the Young Unemployed. Researchers, however, estimate that the actual youth unemployment stands at about 40%, counting in those who are not actively looking for jobs out of despair and are thus excluded from the official statistics.
A survey on the well-being of youth in Turkey, released Jan. 26, reveals that “finding a job” is the top issue that young people prioritize for contentment in life. The survey — conducted jointly by the Habitat Association and the Infakto Research Workshop and based on interviews with 1,230 urban people aged 18-30 — finds that 65% of those employed are content with their lives, but the rate falls to 47% among the jobless. According to the survey, 73% of young people believe that finding a job is hard and job opportunities are limited in Turkey, while half of the respondents believe job opportunities are better abroad and a third wish to emigrate.
“Young people who have given up hope on everything could drift into various directions, including crime,” Sezai Hazir, head of the Habitat Association, warned.
Turkey’s decision-makers should work to create more job opportunities for the young and outline policies to equip them with better professional skills, Hazir told Al-Monitor. “There is a growing trend of alienation from education. In our survey, 66% of respondents say they are not satisfied with the education they have received, complaining they have failed to find a job after graduating from university,” he said.
Hazir stressed the problem should be tackled away from political polarizations. “The needs of the young unemployed are local and the solutions should be developed accordingly through cooperation between local administrations, the private sector and civil society. Keeping the skilled, young labor force should become an issue of competition between cities,” he added.
Seren Selvin Korkmaz, director-general of the Istanbul Political Research Institute, said, “The biggest issue with the young jobless is that they lose hope for the future. They fail to start a secure working life and are pessimistic about finding jobs matching their merits.”
The pandemic has only worsened the isolation of unemployed young people, Korkmaz told Al-Monitor. “The severity of uncertainty and the length of job searching have both increased. [Some] of the young people have grown even poorer. … Because of business closures, their daily earnings from short-term jobs have vanished too, leaving them under serious strain,” she said. Neither the government nor the opposition has managed to propose a comprehensive solution to the problem of youth unemployment, she added.
Turkey’s next parliamentary and presidential elections are due in 2023, when about 6 million voters from Generation Z will vote for the first time. Many of them will probably be jobless, which will bear on how they vote. “Under the current system, the vote of even 1% of those young people could be influential and make a difference,” Korkmaz said.
Serdar Sayan, director of the Social Policies Research Center at the TOBB University of Economics and Technology in Ankara, said their most recent estimate puts the actual unemployment rate in the 15-24 age group at 38.5%, based on the broad definition of unemployment, including those who are not actively looking for jobs but are ready to work.
“An age group that is potentially the most productive is being left out of production as an idle resource,” Sayan told Al-Monitor. “And if the economy fails to grow at a certain rate, one can hardly create jobs for the 800,000 people who join the working-age population every year.”
According to Sayan, part of the unemployment problem among the young stems from the discrepancy between what the economy needs and where young people prefer to work. “In the manufacturing industry, for instance, many jobs remain vacant, while young people focus on sectors such as hospitality, tourism, entertainment and travel,” he said.
Also, many young people are deterred from the labor market because they are usually offered the minimum wage of 2,825 Turkish liras ($395), which is well below the 3,743 liras ($523) that a leading Turkish trade union marks as the poverty line per person.
Economists and political analysts see no light at the end of the pandemic tunnel for the young unless Ankara takes urgent measures.
“Many businesses, especially in the services sector, will fail to reopen after the pandemic is over. Youth unemployment will be higher than the pre-pandemic level. In short, tough times are ahead of us,” Sayan said.