When economic times get tough, it seems that young people turn to education: the number of teenagers in school and college in some of the world's richest countries increased after the economic crisis in 2008, figures have revealed.
According to data published by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), 86 per cent of 15- to 19-year-olds across 40 countries were in education in 2011, up 2 percentage points on 2008. The Education at a Glance report suggests that one of the reasons is that access to secondary schools for 11- to 18-year-olds has expanded in recent years.
But Alan Tuckett, president of the International Council for Adult Education, said the figures also showed that many teenagers were taking the "perfectly intelligent position" to gain new skills in order to boost their job prospects.
"While the status of student is not as attractive as that of worker or employee to many teenagers, it is much more attractive than the status of unemployed," he said.
"There are two groups of people: those who would much rather be in a job but think they had better go to college, and for whom the accumulation of qualifications may be a necessary evil until a job does come along; and those who realise the labour market is changing. Low-skilled jobs are disappearing and it's better to get qualified."
The report notes that the transition from education to work is typically smoother in countries with work-study programmes for students from the age of 14 and post-16.
However, when the labour market deteriorates, young people moving from school to work are often the first to encounter difficulties because employers tend to prefer more experienced workers for the few jobs on offer, the report adds.
Employment rates among 15- to 19-year-olds vary markedly between countries. In some, including Australia, Brazil, Canada and Germany, half of those no longer in education are employed; in others, such as Greece, Hungary, Israel, South Korea and Spain, less than a quarter are employed.
Meanwhile, the OECD report also warns that growth in the number of Neets (young people not in education, employment or training) will cause problems for many governments in the coming years. On average across OECD countries, 16 per cent of 15- to 29-year-olds were Neet in 2011, compared with less than 14 per cent in 2008.
The number of Neets is indicative of a declining economic situation, but a rise can also indicate a break in the traditional route between school and work, the report said. Neets are less likely to be integrated into the labour market and more likely to suffer long-term effects on their employment prospects and even their health.
"During the recent economic crisis, the number of Neets increased as employment among young people and low-skilled workers fell sharply," the report said. "While unemployment rates will probably fall as the world economies recover, it will be more difficult for governments to integrate the population of young people who have withdrawn from the labour market."
European leaders last week pledged EUR8 billion to help combat youth unemployment. In April this year, youth unemployment stood at 23.5 per cent across the 27 EU member states, with 7.5 million people under the age of 25 classed as Neet.
European Council president Herman Van Rompuy said that the extra cash would help to focus efforts on the problem. "We are under no illusion: the problem won't be solved overnight. But there is no reason for a 'mission impossible' mindset. Common resolve and immediate actions can make a difference," he said.