Latin America Advisor

A Daily Publication of The Dialogue

What’s Driving Youth Mobility in Latin America?

The Accelerating Pathways survey, commissioned by the Citi Foundation and conducted by the Economist Intelligence Unit, found that 77 percent of youth polled in São Paulo and 65 percent polled in Panama City have moved in the last five years for work, school or in search of a better life. The figures contrast with 39 percent of respondents in Buenos Aires and 35 percent of those polled in Mexico City who said they moved for those reasons. What factors are driving youth mobility in the region, and why have the residents of some cities been more mobile than others? What do the migration trends mean for governments and urban planners? What do they mean for businesses as they seek to attract talent?

Matthew Carnes, associate professor of government and director of the Center for Latin American Studies at Georgetown University: “Young adult mobility, as an indicator, is enigmatic. At its best, it indicates promising new opportunities for growth and innovation, indicating that highly motivated youths are being drawn to cities to study or work. But at its worst, it may reflect the lack of good job or educational offerings, which lead to short-term, vulnerable employment and churn without growth. Let’s start with a baseline: on average, 47 percent of global youth reported migrating to cities to better their life chances or pursue work or education. In Latin America, cities such as São Paulo and Panama City significantly exceed the average, while others such as Mexico City and Buenos Aires fall significantly shorter. What is happening? On one level, it’s a question of optimism and hope. Looking further into the survey data, Latin American youth—especially in the higher-mobility cities—are very optimistic: Lima, Bogotá and São Paulo all make the top ten of 35 cities surveyed for the optimism of their young people, and Panama City comes in at number eleven. Buenos Aires and Mexico City, on the other hand, fall further down the list, perhaps reflecting a perception of less dynamism in those cities. Troublingly, though, the optimism in the region may not be finding much support from local governments. No Latin American country was in the top half of a ranking of 35 global cities for the efforts made by the city to support their young people. So youth may find themselves dissatisfied when they arrive in these new places, and as a result, may soon be moving again. Policymakers and business leaders would do well to take advantage of this moment. An eager crop of young people is arriving, ready to learn and to work. Building a robust infrastructure of educational and job-training opportunities, as well as the social supports to aid during moments of transition, could produce significant growth. But failing to do so could lead to widespread disenchantment, and even unrest, as the hopes of youth go unfulfilled. The moment is enigmatic, but with the right investments and policies, it need not be.”

Julia Yansura, associate for the Migration, Remittances and Development program at the Inter-American Dialogue: “The Accelerating Pathways survey, which focuses on young people between the ages of 18 and 25 living in major cities around the world, provides some fascinating insights into mobility. One particularly interesting finding of the survey is that 85 percent of respondents in Latin American cities who have moved before express willingness to move again, for similar reasons, and more than one third of them believe this will be to a different country. The survey’s focus on young people arriving in cities takes on a very positive tone. Indeed, mobility can be a wonderful thing, allowing young people to access education, jobs and new experiences while also allowing employers, universities and neighborhoods to tap into new talent. What is missing from this discussion, and what is less positive, is findings on the reasons why young people are leaving their communities and, in many cases, their countries. The phrase ‘in search of a better life’ is euphemistic. The unfortunate reality is that for many young people in Latin America, migration is not so much a question of migrating to enjoy new opportunities as it is escaping from untenable situations involving violence, lack of opportunities and poverty. Often, it involves undocumented migration across international borders, which exposes them to severe risks. In the first half of 2016, for example, over 25,000 unaccompanied youth were apprehended trying to cross the border into the United States. In this context, the factors driving mobility are as much about leaving home as they are about arriving in a new city. For example, a 2014 survey by the Inter-American Dialogue found that 38 percent of young people in El Salvador are considering migrating, mainly due to lack of opportunities and high levels of violence. Countries like Costa Rica, Chile and Brazil, despite greater levels of economic development, struggle with high levels of youth unemployment. Each country is different, but unemployment, lack of opportunities, and violence are common threads.”

Karen A. Woodrow-Lafield, research professor and faculty associate at the Maryland Population Research Center at the University of Maryland, College Park: “Whether the recent migrants are internal or international migrants, they migrated voluntarily rather than involuntarily. From Gallup surveys in more than 150 countries over 2010-2012, about 13 percent say they would like to move to another country. Globally, only 3.3 percent were living outside their native countries in 2015, so the practicalities are deterrents. It is worth noting that Buenos Aires and Mexico City have greater shares of ‘stayers,’ or long-term, more settled residents, than São Paulo and Panama City. As noted in the 2015 SICREMI report of the OAS and OECD, Latin American and Caribbean migration to Canada and the United States has not rebounded from diminished levels after the global economic downturn. Intra-regional migration has increased, due to greater economic integration associated with international agreements. A country of emigration, Brazil has had increases to temporary migrants due to building the skilled talent pool and due to the demand for more workers for World Cup and Olympics events. Gallup surveys show favor ability toward maintaining present immigration levels or increasing immigration levels. Panama’s migration levels are on a smaller scale, but immigration and the influx of foreign workers increased after 2010. Argentina has had more immigration than emigration, with sizable temporary migration from recent regularization and foreign worker programs. Argentina attracts Bolivians, Chileans, Uruguayans and neighbor Paraguayans. Sentiments about immigration are more split among Argentines, with two in five wanting to maintain immigration levels and two in five wanting decreased levels. Mexico has more emigration than immigration, despite diminishing Mexico-United States flows. Mexico has focused on controlling the southern border and other Central American migrants. The majority—54 percent—of Mexican residents prefer decreased immigration levels.”

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