Ozan Yilmaz had hoped a degree in logistics would provide a straightforward route into work, but more than a year after graduating the 23-year-old is still looking for a job.
“I am always applying. Sometimes I was called to interviews. But I never get anything,” he said, speaking from the Istanbul home that he shares with his mother. “They want experience but you need to start work somewhere to get that.”
Now the coronavirus pandemic has made the hunt even more difficult. “Unfortunately, many employers are very nervous,” Mr Yilmaz said.
Youth unemployment in Turkey stood at 24 per cent in September, the most recent available data, as young people between the ages of 15 and 24 found themselves at the sharp end of a broader employment crisis that has been compounded by the economic consequences of Covid-19.
Though the official nationwide unemployment rate was 12.7 per cent in September — down from 13.2 per cent in August — experts said the headline figures masked a rise in the number of people in the country of 83m who were falling out of the labour force completely, disheartened that they could not find work.
“The number of people who are actively looking for a job, so can be considered unemployed, is falling,” said Gunes Asik, an assistant professor of economics at TOBB university in Ankara. “People are dropping out of the labour force.”
The population not in the labour force reached 31.1m in September — up from 28.7m a year earlier, even though the working-age population grew by more than a million.
At the same time, a ban on firing workers during the pandemic means that the full impact of the coronavirus crisis on future employment levels is not reflected in current statistics.
“It’s difficult to calculate the real unemployment number,” said Murat Sagman, a lecturer in economics at Istanbul Bilgi University. “Companies might want to get rid of people but cannot.”
The government’s short-time work scheme, while helping to cushion the impact of the pandemic, had also made it hard to see the real picture, Mr Sagman said. “We don’t know how many people are really out of work.”
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has ruled Turkey for the past 18 years, built much of his early success on the back of booming economic growth that created millions of jobs and provided the foundation for rising prosperity.
But a shift in the aftermath of the global financial crisis towards an economic model focused on consumption and construction, rather than high value-added sectors, combined with several recent periods of financial volatility, has caused that trend to stall, say analysts.
Even though the economy rebounded last year after exiting its first recession in a decade, the boom did not trigger a corresponding bounce in employment. The fallout from coronavirus, which caused a fresh plunge in growth last year, dealt a further blow to efforts to create jobs.
The slump has political implications for Mr Erdogan, who has seen his popularity slide and faced sharp criticism from opposition parties over the lack of jobs.
At a meeting of the rightwing IYI party last year, party leader Meral Aksener gave the stage to a 28-year-old university graduate who said his struggle to find work meant he could not “see a future, or dream”.
Tackling youth unemployment in Turkey, where the median age is 32, is one of the biggest challenges facing Mr Erdogan and his new economic team, overhauled in November following the resignation of his son-in-law as Treasury and finance minister and the appointment of a new central bank governor.
“We need structural reforms that try to lower the impact of construction and focus on other industries, especially new industries,” said Mr Sagman at Bilgi University. “We need a real shift in the Turkish economy but it will take time.”
Economists warn that failure to improve the employment rate among Turkey’s youth, in particular, could have long-term implications.
“These are young people who are supposed to stay in the labour market for long periods of time,” said Gokce Uysal, deputy director of the economic and social research centre at Istanbul’s Bahcesehir University. “Someone who is 20 years old today and is not looking for a job because unemployment is very high is going to stay in the labour market for 40 more years. We are wasting their new skills.”
But for Mr Yilmaz, like many others, structural reforms are a long-term solution while he has a short-term problem. “I feel like a burden on my family,” he said, adding that he would even work for free as an apprentice in exchange for the experience. “Seeing as I can’t earn my own money, I feel like someone who has no expectations from life.”