Latin America is home to one of the world’s most youthful demographics, with a large bubble of young people set to enter the labor market every year. Central America in particular has a massive youth population, with Nicaragua, Guatemala, Honduras, Belize and El Salvador representing five of the six countries in Latin America with the highest proportion of inhabitants aged 15 to 24, according to non-governmental organization Population Reference Bureau (PRB). These five nations plus Panama are also among the top ten in Latin America in terms of labor force participation among 15 to 24 year olds, although South American nations Brazil and Paraguay lead the region with the highest participation rates.
However, such high levels of employment among young people tend to indicate lower levels of participation in higher education, as none of the aforementioned countries rank among the top ten in Latin America for enrollment in tertiary education. While booming youth demographics obviously provide businesses with a wider, more competitive labor pool from which to choose – in contrast to the aging populations in much of the developed world – the limited number of opportunities available in Latin America mean many people are left without work or even a chance to study.
This means the region’s demographic dividend risks becoming a burden if it is not managed efficiently. UN figures indicate that the youth unemployment rate in Latin America and the Caribbean stands at about 15 percent, more than double the overall unemployment rate. Around 53 percent of the total youth population is employed, while about one third are full-time students. This leaves a lost generation of almost 20 million “NEETs” (not in employment, education or training) or “NiNis” (ni estudian, ni trabajan) as they are known in Spanish.
The public and private sectors will not be able to harness the full potential of Latin America’s demographic dividend until they can generate greater opportunities for the region’s more marginalized youths to gain the training and education that they need in order to then find work and become more productive members of society.