October 5, 2020, Ayse Ökten and Samed Küçükikiz
Youth unemployment rates soared in many countries during the COVID-19 pandemic. The graph below shows the unemployment rates in the U.S., the OECD area, and Turkey for 15-24 year olds (data). Between March and April of 2020 youth unemployment rates increased from 10% to above 25% in the U.S. and from 12% to 18% in the OECD countries.
Turkey, on the other hand, did not experience a big increase in youth unemployment during this period, perhaps due to the mitigation efforts such as the short-term work programs and firing bans. However, the level of youth unemployment in Turkey was very high even before the start of the pandemic. The graph below shows the youth unemployment rate in several countries in 2018. Greece and Spain with almost 40% and 35% youth unemployment rates, respectively, top the list. Turkey ranks high in this list with a 20% unemployment rate.
There are several complications in examining youth unemployment in Turkey. For example, even though the birth rate has been declining since the 1990s, the number of 15-24-year-old individuals in the country has risen dramatically after 2014. This rise is likely to be due to the age composition of the Syrian refugees in Turkey. In 2020, almost 1.2 million of the 3.6 million Syrian refugees in Turkey were between ages 15 and 24 (data).
While separating the issues related to the refugees maybe complicated, their impact might be less of a concern when we examine data on individuals with higher education. According to the first graph below, the unemployment rate of those with tertiary education has increased from 10.1% in 2012 to 13.7% in 2019. The percent of 15-24 year olds who are not at school or in the labor force also shows a significant increase in this time period, especially for those with a high school degree (HS) or more than a high school degree.
We should note that both the number of people with tertiary education and the number of universities have been increasing in Turkey. Consequently, higher education enrollment rates (percentage of 18- to 24-year-olds enrolled as undergraduate or graduate students in colleges) have increased from 10% in 1998 to around 44% in 2019.
Nevertheless, percent of the population with tertiary education in Turkey continues to lag behind many countries. The first graph below shows the percent of 25-34 year olds with tertiary education across many countries in 2019 (data). South Korea tops this list with almost 70% of the youth with tertiary degrees. In Turkey, on the other hand, less than 40% of the 25-34 year olds have tertiary degrees. The second graph shows the change over time in a select number of countries. While the progress in Turkey is evident (increasing from around 10% in 1990 to above 30% in 2019), there certainly is more work needed for the educational attainment in Turkey to catch up with educational attainment in the frontier countries.