Young U.S. workers are worse off than in parts of Europe

May 13, 2013, 8:11 PM UTC
Good luck out there.

FORTUNE — Being jobless is an awful thing for anyone no matter where they live. But it’s especially unnerving for young people just starting their careers. A lot has been written about the topic lately, but two new reports show the employment picture likely won’t get any better for young people living in the world’s richest countries. And in many ways, America’s young people today have it worse than even parts of debt-troubled Europe.

The findings come as thousands graduate from college this month. Graduates may have hung up their hard-earned diplomas, but for many it will be a huge struggle to find jobs they studied hard for.

Across the world’s richest countries, joblessness among 15- to 24-year-olds is estimated at 12.6%, close to its crisis peak, according to the International Labor Organization. The problem is most pronounced in a few parts of the world, including developed economies, such as the United States and parts of Europe.

In 2012, the rate of joblessness in the richest countries rose to a decades-long high of 18.1%, according to the ILO, which doesn’t see the rate drop below 17% before 2016.

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The problem may be rooted in a mismatch of skills, where many young people are overqualified for the jobs they’re stuck in. This is seen across Europe’s debt-troubled economies, where according to the report, an increasing share of youth have taken up part-time work when they really want full-time jobs. In 2011, 25% of young people were stuck in part-time jobs. Another 40.5% work as temps.

But while the picture for Europe’s youth may look bleak, young people in America have it worse than a few countries in the region. It’s indeed surprising, given that the U.S. economy has been recovering, albeit very slowly, while Europe continues to struggle with its debt crisis.

David Leonhardt of The New York Times recently painted a bleaker picture for America’s youth. Over the last 12 years, the U.S. went from having the highest share of employed 25- to 34-year-olds among large, wealthy economies to having the lowest. In 2011, 26.2% of young people in the U.S. were not working. That’s higher than Canada with 20.2%, Germany with 20.5%, Japan with 21%, Britain with 21.6% and 22% in France. It wasn’t always this way. In 2000, the U.S. led these countries, including Australia, Russia, and Sweden in the share of people with jobs. Now America lags them all.

It’s uncertain why young people in the U.S. are missing out on the economic recovery, but Leonhardt comes up with various reasons. One is that the nation has lost its lead in producing college graduates, a huge problem given that education remains one of the most important paths toward employment in a highly competitive technology-heavy economy.

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The implications are far-reaching, impacting the life-long potential earnings of young people. The longer they’re jobless, the harder it is for them to find work. And the longer they’re out of work, the further they lag behind in terms of earning potential. Already, young people are borrowing and spending less to buy everything from cars to homes, which has potentially serious implications for the overall economy.

Despite the headwinds, America’s young people are surprisingly optimistic about their future. They may have hope today, but it’s worth following where they may be a few years from today.

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