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If Time magazine had any inkling of sense, it would name the Nini the person of the year for 2010. Just what, you might ask, is a Nini? Adopted in Mexico during the crisis, the slang word means a young person who does not work or study.
In Mexico, the Nini has been front and center in the press in recent days. Surrounding the World Youth Conference held late last month in the central Mexican city of Leon, Guanajuato, a sharp polemic developed over the number of Ninis in the country and the government’s response to them.
Reacting to different reports of upwards of eight million Ninis in the country, a good half million of whom are estimated have enlisted in the ranks of organized crime, officials from the federal interior and education ministries claimed the number was exaggerated and only about 280,000 idle youth were in the land.
Alonso Lujambio, secretary of education, inflamed the debate when he declared that estimates of millions of Ninis devalue the young women who stay home to raise families and perform domestic chores.
A torrent of ridicule gushed forth on the Internet and from prominent personalities. Jose Narro, rector of the prestigious National Autonomous University of Mexico, joined the verbal fray. Refuting Calderon administration officials’ low estimate, Narro insisted that million of Ninis did indeed exist and it was incumbent on the government to do something about the problem.
Aureliano Pena Lomeli, rector of the Autonomous University of Chapingo, Mexico’s main agricultural school, was quoted as saying the crisis was even worse for the country’s rural youth. According to Pena, less than one in ten rural youth pursue higher education.
The Nini is not just a Mexican phenomenon. According to the International Labor Organization, 81 million young people across the globe were unemployed at the end of 2009. Enough to populate a country the size of Iran, the legions of jobless youth represent “the highest number ever,” in the words of the ILO.
Globally, massive youth unemployment is the backdrop for the United Nations International Youth Year, which kicked off in August. A report prepared for the ILO warned of a “lost generation” made up of young people who “have dropped out of the labour market, having lost all hope of being able to work for a decent living”.
If any place could be considered the epicenter of the Nini, it might be violence-torn Ciudad Juarez on the Mexico-US border. With few opportunities for earning livable wages in the galleys of the foreign-owned export assembly plants and economically excluded from advanced education, youth are easily recruited as look-outs, contraband smugglers, drug dealers and killers by rival drug cartels.
Ciudad Juarez’s young have topped the list of among the more than 6,000 murder victims since 2008. Of 1,623 murders reported in the border city between 2008 and early 2010, 1,073 were against persons less than 26 years of age, according to the Reforma news service. Separately, Mexican journalist Raymundo Riva Palacio reported that 54 percent of the victims of the narco war throughout the country during 2008 and 2009 were aged 21 to 35.
Symbolized by the massacre of 15 young people at a party in the Ciudad Juarez neighborhood of Villas de Salvarcar last January, the slaughter has produced another new word for the popular vocabulary: juvencidio- “youthcide.”
The needs of young people languish at the bottom of the public policy priority list. While Mexico’s federal government pledges $300 million to reconstruct Ciudad Juarez, it doles out $6 billion to beef up security forces.
For many youth, criminality is the “only option,” said Julian Contreras, a young activist with Ciudad Juarez’s Plural Citizens Front. “We are in a country where there is no future for us as young people, and this is blowing up and radicalizing us,” Contreras said in an interview earlier this year. Contreras’ group has protested militarization, violence and government human rights violations.
For decades the Mexican Nini was a phantom, hidden in large measure by the entrance of young immigrant workers into the US labor market. Now, however, the economic crash in El Norte coupled with the border security crackdown have pushed the contradictions of high unemployment, limited educational opportunities and the raging narco war to a boiling point. The multi-faceted crisis has erupted at precisely the moment when Mexico is experiencing a so-called “demographic bonus” of people in the 15-29 age group.
Ninis have long been a part of the US social landscape too, though largely shunned by media, government and the broader society. Who remembers the thousands of inner-city youth killed during the crack wars of the 1980s and early 1990s? The young people of color who continue meeting violent deaths in places like Oakland and Chicago?
Routinely, millions of US Ninis are funneled into the prison-industrial complex or military. Now, there appears to be more Ninis than ever.
In July, the peak month of summertime employment, the US Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that only 48.9 percent of young people aged 16-24 were in the workforce–the lowest number on record since statistics first began to be collected back in 1948. The Washington, D.C.-based Center for American Progress earlier reported the number of young people aged 20-24 who attend school in the United States dropped by 10 percent from 2008 to early 2010. As always, unemployment strikes youth of color–immigrant and non-immigrant–the hardest.
“This is a state of emergency,” said the Rev. Jesse Jackson on his weekly radio program. On August 28, Jackson’s Rainbow Push Coalition joined with the United Auto Workers to lead a march of several thousand people for jobs, justice and peace in Detroit, Michigan, a city that has suffered the hemorrhaging of thousands of well-paid industrial jobs to Mexico and other low-wage havens. Like Ciudad Juarez, Detroit is a place beset by soaring youth unemployment, crammed with tens of thousands of abandoned homes and littered with dashed dreams.
The Detroit-Ciudad Juarez model is spreading. While record U.S. military budgets enrich the satraps of empire, states like California and Arizona turn away university applicants, classrooms bulge with overcrowding coast-to-coast and government support for both basic and higher education is dwindling.
It has been said that a society can be judged by the way it treats its young and old. Currently in vogue in the United States and other so-called developed countries, proposals to extend the retirement age portend denying even more job opportunities to the young while promising prolonged pain and slashed benefits for the elderly.
Some youth are fighting back, perhaps even in a prelude to a 1968-style revolt- considering the numbers of frustrated young in the world. So far, their success has been mixed. Young people were in the forefront of recent protests in Greece against an austerity regime. Inspiring broad popular support against cutbacks, university students in Puerto Rico occupied their campus for weeks this year and forced concessions from administrators. Young faces were prominent at the U.S. Social Forum held this summer in Detroit under the slogan “Another World is Possible, Another US is Necessary.”
In multi-cultural California and other states, students are joining with faculty and workers to stage an October 7 action for public education. Significantly, the protest coincides with the anniversary of the Afghanistan war.
At the World Youth Conference, attended by more than 27,000 people from about 100 countries, Calderon Cabinet member Felix Guerra implored the young to not become “victims of circumstances” and blame their parents, their government and their world for the state of affairs. Urging young people to become entrepreneurs, Guerra evoked the “four Ms” as the solution: “market, market, market, market.”
For activists like Julian Contreras, laissez-faire capitalism, which has trounced the globe for nearly three decades, is precisely the problem. “Deep, drastic changes are needed–a change in economic policy and a more equitable distribution of wealth and not just spare change,” Contreras contended. “What we Mexicans need are real opportunities for development and education.” Collective activism, he said, is the key to a “better future, a better planet.”
Kent Paterson is a freelance journalist who covers the southwestern United States, Mexico, and Latin America. He is an analyst for the Americas Program at www.cipamericas.org