The Youth Employment Crisis

2014 marked six years since the financial crisis that rocked the global economy. Today there are many signs of recovery from the Great Recession that followed, including improving employment numbers. But one group is still being left behind: young people. Youth unemployment rates in the United States are already twice those of the general workforce—and they’re on an upward trend. If we don’t find opportunities for these young people soon, they’ll be on a fundamentally worse employment track for the rest of their careers. It’s a problem not just in the U.S., but around the world—and it’s affecting economies and the stability of nations.

The Rockefeller Foundation knows it’s a pressing issue, but we’re not job creators. So what is a foundation’s role? John Irons, Rockefeller Foundation managing director for global markets, shared with us what the Foundation is doing to meet this generational challenge.

The Rockefeller Foundation has been concerned with employment for decades.

Throughout the 1960s, The Rockefeller Foundation’s Equal Opportunity grants addressed employment as part of a larger effort to confront the most pressing issues impacting the lives of minorities. And in the 1970s, our Working Communities Initiative broadened that work to focus on all kinds of low-income urban communities—both of these efforts foreshadowed our goal today of building and promoting more inclusive economies.

All that history and experience notwithstanding, our commitment to the issue—and ability to help make broad, system-level change—was perhaps never tested as much as during and following the Great Recession that began in late 2008. The Great Recession revealed a new problem: While much of our prior work centered on how to make jobs better, or more secure, we now found ourselves in a world with simply too few jobs to go around.


We needed to shift our focus and tackle employment directly—both in the United States and in developing economies, where there are huge employment challenges, partly due to the so-called “youth bulge” and other demographic dynamics and partly because of a simple dearth of opportunities.

But what could a Foundation do to help create new jobs?

It certainly wasn’t a traditional role for an institution like ours to play, but the stakes were too high not to jump into the fray.

We knew from some of our other work focused on employment and opportunity—especially Digital Jobs Africa—that we couldn’t forge a systemic approach without the support, and buy-in, of the private sector. In fact, we knew that the private sector would eventually have to lead the effort. The sooner they see bottom-line benefits to hiring disadvantaged young workers, the sooner we’ll see true, transformative change.


Our learning has already shown some of what employers can do to turn the tide.

For example, many employers’ practices for screening and selecting job candidates often put youth at a disadvantage. So The Rockefeller Foundation tested a new game-based technology called Knack to compare how disadvantaged youth scored in comparison to current entry-level employees across several sectors. It turned out that more than 80 percent of disadvantaged youth scored at or above the jobholder average on at least one job.

Tools like Knack help employers to improve recruiting, uncover and develop better leaders, and—in the end—save money. Learnings like these are only a beginning. In the changed environment following the Great Recession, entire economies have to create a new normal and the more inclusive they are of young people, the better off they’ll be, for generations to come.

Learn More About U.S. Youth Employment Initiative

Reports & Publications:

The Future of Youth Employment | Institute for the FutureThe Plummeting Labor Market Fortunes of Teens | BrookingsU.S. Youth Employment | The Rockefeller FoundationYouth Hold the Key | The Bridgespan Group