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Conference Tackles Youth Unemployment Crisis

June 23, 2014

Middlebury, Vt.—The Rohatyn Center for Global Affairs hosted its 2nd annual international and interdisciplinary conference on March 13-15, 2014. The conference—titled The Young and the Jobless: Youth Unemployment in Times of Crisis—brought together speakers from varied disciplines and backgrounds. Among the many presentations were topics such as the dynamics of displacement and migration, gender inequality, violence, and the relationship of unpaid internships and volunteer work to youth unemployment.  One session was devoted to personal stories from recent Middlebury alumni who are currently facing a challenging job market.

The conference was preceded by three videoconferences in French, Spanish and Russian, which connected Middlebury students with students at the C.V. Starr-Middlebury Schools in Paris, Madrid, and Moscow. Professors Paula Schwarz and William Poulin-Deltour from French, Juana Gamero de Coca from Spanish, and Tatiana Smorodinska from Russian, along with their counterparts abroad, prepared weeks in advance of the conference both the structure of the class and the reading material about youth unemployment in their respective countries. Each of the class meetings was over an hour and a half long, with both students and faculty in each of the sites engaging in sometimes spirited but always informative conversations. The concerted efforts of both Middlebury faculty and staff, as well as those of sites abroad, made these events a reality, and serve to highlight the evolving landscape of 21st century learning, as well as the vast possibilities at an otherwise geographically isolated institution like Middlebury College. 

Students connect with their peers abroad in Paris

The day before the conference officially opened, the Student Advisory Board of the Rohatyn Center held a screening of the film DETROPIA, a 2012 award-winning documentary that highlights the changing landscape of Detroit in the wake of the economic downturn. The film explores the various ways in which unemployment and the lack of opportunities continues to affect Detroit’s education system and its struggling youth population. Attendants were asked to reflect on their own backgrounds and communities and to bring this reflection to conference sessions. Over thirty students were in attendance for the screening of DETROPIA in the midsts of one of the season's worst snowstorms, which served to not only highlight the upcoming conference but also to garner student interest in the important topic.

Despite the storm, all participants arrived in time for the opening session of the conference on Thursday afternoon. These participants included scholars from the social sciences and humanities as well as policy makers, and four Middlebury alumni, who study or experience youth unemployment. They came from Africa, Europe and Latin America, including some from universities that host the C.V. Starr-Middlebury Schools Abroad, as well as from our own campus and from other universities in the United States.

Several major themes relating to youth unemployment were discussed in the three-day conference. In particular, participants discussed the precariousness of the job market (the uncertainty of employment status and the lack of long-term security and stability), issues of human disposability (the young as replaceable, cheap forms of labor in the form of overeducated interns, volunteers or temporary workers), and evolving migration patterns (in which young people become more mobile as borders and laws change in response to economic hardships). There were lively discussions of the impact of youth unemployment at the local and national levels on economic and political (in)securities. Participants exchanged ideas about the right to work, in which the job is seen as a defining characteristic of an individual, and also the right to leisure, which in the current economic climate is a reality that only very few experience. Particularly pertinent to the experiences of Middlebury College students were the discussions about unpaid internships and the gap between the expectations students have while in college and the reality they face when they graduate. Indeed, youth unemployment is not only a matter of statistics and experiences of youth in Africa and Europe, but it is also here and close to home.

Svea Closser speaks about volunteering in Pakistan

Professors Tamar Mayer, Jamie McCallum, Sujata Moorti and Robert Prasch, members of the organizing committee, hope to publish the papers from the conference in an edited volume and include new topics and areas that were not included in the conference, e.g., youth unemployment in Russia, the Arab world and Greece. Mayer states, “surprisingly, there is currently little scholarship on the crisis of youth unemployment, even though there is no other issue with such grave social, economic, and political ramifications worldwide as this one. I hope that our volume will challenge academics and others to examine the current crisis at all geographical scales, from the local to the global, and from multiple disciplinary perspectives.”

The international and interdisciplinary conferences at the Rohatyn Center for Global Affairs are annual events, which, as Mayer puts it, “are global, international and interdisciplinary by design. They always explore topics that can be discussed from multiple disciplinary perspectives, in ways that contribute to our International and Global Studies Program curriculum and connect our campus to the C.V. Starr-Middlebury Schools Abroad.” The first conference, held on March 14-16, 2013, was titled The Politics of Freshwater: Access and Identity in a Changing Environment. The third annual conference, on the status of the 2015 Millennium Development Goals, will be held in March 2015.

All 8 sessions of this year's conference are available online at the conference website. 

Rohatyn Center for Global Affairs

Robert A. Jones '59 House
148 Hillcrest Road
Middlebury College
Middlebury, VT 05753