Expert views

Let’s take trade and youth seriously

3 juillet 2018
Julia Seiermann, UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD)

Making trade work for young jobseekers requires identifying and removing barriers

Today’s youth are more educated than any previous generation. However, for many of them this does not translate into economic opportunities. Some 13.5% of young people aged between 15 and 24 were unemployed in 2017 compared to only 5.5% of the working-age population, according to the International Labour Organization.

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) explicitly recognize the need to ‘achieve full and productive employment and decent work’ for young people (SDG target 8.5) and ‘substantially reduce the proportion of youth not in employment, education or training’ (target 8.6). International trade is a means of implementation of the SDGs and is widely recognized for its potential to create jobs if accompanied by appropriate policies. Here’s how we make trade work for young people too.


We know that international trade creates winners and losers and that its impact varies for different groups of the population. For example, we know that trade might not have the same impact on men and on women, or on skilled and unskilled workers. However, we know surprisingly little about how trade affects young people. To design trade policies that help youth we must first understand the mechanisms through which globalization changes opportunities for young workers and entrepreneurs. We therefore need to substantially increase both theoretical and empirical research on this topic.


In trade policymaking, gender mainstreaming is becoming increasingly common. The United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) developed a Trade and Gender Toolbox to support countries in the assessment of the gender impact of trade policy, while a new generation of free trade agreements includes chapters on trade and gender.

If trade can help women, it can help young people, too. We should learn from the gender mainstreaming experience and, whenever appropriate, adapt these tools for youth mainstreaming. The good news for both research and policy mainstreaming is that we often already have the necessary data to focus on youth as many data sources are disaggregated by age.


One of the main reasons globalization (and, for that matter, technological progress) creates winners and losers is that many people have difficulty adapting to changing skills requirements. An industrial mechanic who loses her job today will usually not be able to start as a financial analyst tomorrow. Specific skills may determine whether people win or lose through globalization, which gives younger people a distinct advantage.

Young people learn more easily and many are still in the process of getting an education, which can be adapted to meet the current and future need for specific skills. At the national level this implies that countries with a larger share of young people may be able to better adapt to fast-paced change – provided their youth get the learning opportunities they need.


To allow young people to harness the opportunities globalization and technological change have to offer, we must prepare them for the jobs of the future. While education alone is not enough, it remains an essential ingredient for youth to benefit from trade.

First, we need to provide all children with a high-quality general education, teach them how to learn and lay the basis for them to acquire more specific skills later on.

Second, we must make advanced education – be it vocational training or university studies – available to all young people and adapt it to changing skills demands to make sure today’s youth are equipped for the future.


Young people face multiple barriers preventing them from benefitting from the opportunities of international trade through finding a job or starting a business. Many are of financial nature. Higher education can be prohibitively expensive; low-paid or unpaid entry-level jobs make it difficult for poor youth to acquire the sector-specific experience for the career of their dreams; and becoming an entrepreneur often requires funds that go beyond most young people’s savings or credit lines.

Other barriers are non-financial, for example social constraints that prevent girls and young women, minorities or children of less educated parents to get higher education. Tackling such barriers is crucial to ensure that trade not only benefits youth but also reduces inequalities between young people of different gender or socio-economic background.