Employment & Empowerment: Definitions & Conceptual Issues

Definitions of employment underemployment and unemployment are necessary to understand the full picture of a countrys employment situation. There are still problems with these terms in their ability to accurately measure the quality and distribution of work. Additionally, some argue that the criteria for defining someone as employed and underemployed are too broad. Understanding informal employment is necessary, because many, if not most people earning a livelihood in a post-conflict environment will do so informally. However, employment statistics do not account for this group.

A universal definition of empowerment, and economic empowerment, specifically, has not been developed, nor is it likely to be, given the diversity of use in which this term has been employed. Here the emphasis is on economic empowerment of youth and women, two of the most vulnerable groups during and following conflict. However, in addition to the recognized necessity of equality for economic opportunity as a human right, these groups can also play a critical role in promoting and sustaining peace. Finally, youth is defined differently by international bodies, conventions and organizations, setting distinct limitations on the age limits that constitute youth. In addition, these international norms may not align with cultural interpretations of youth.


A widely accepted definition of employment comes from the International Labor Organization (ILO), which states that "employed" individuals are above the age of 15 (the minimum age for measuring the economically active population) who were paid employees or self-employed "during a specified brief period, either one week or one day."1

The ILO recommends that, "engagement in an economic activity for as short as one hour is sufficient for a person to be classified as 'employed.'" It is noted that the major reason for the use of the one hour criterion is "to make the definition of employment as extensive as possible in order to cover all types of employment that exist in the economy."2 At the same time, the one-hour marker does not mean that employment is necessarily of high quality or sustainable.

As opposed to the employment definition above, which does not necessarily account for the quality of employment, decent work "involves opportunities for work that is productive and delivers a fair income, security in the workplace and social protection for families, better prospects for personal development and social integration, freedom for people to express their concerns, organize and participate in the decisions that affect their lives and equality of opportunity and treatment for all women and men."3 Following a conflict, decent and stable jobs provide people with: income, freedom, security, dignity, self-esteem, hope and a stakeholder role in the reconciliation and recovery processes.4 However, the ILO concept of decent work is difficult to implement in the post-conflict environment, as economic structures (and government monitoring of these institutions and mechanisms) are likely to have destroyed, partially or in whole, during war.


According to the ILO, which is recognized as the leading international organization working on employment, "the 'underemployed' comprise all persons in paid or self-employment, involuntarily working less than the normal duration of work determined for the economic activity, who were seeking or available for additional work during the reference period." In other words, to be categorized as underemployed, a person must meet three criteria: (1) Work less than the normal duration; (2) Do so on an involuntary basis; and (3) Be seeking or unavailable to do additional work.5

It should be noted that the "underemployed" is a subgroup of the "employed."6 As stated by Eva Liu and Jackie Wu of the Hong Kong-based Legislative Council Secretariat, data of the underemployed provide "a better interpretation of labour statistics," because of the limitations in determining an accurate view of the employment situation based on the one-hour criterion.7 Therefore, the ILO has recommended that examining hours of work provides a more accurate representation of the employment situation.8


The ILO's definition of unemployment is based on three criteria that, like the classification of underemployment, have to be met simultaneously. It states, "The unemployed comprise all persons above the minimum age specified (15 years) for measuring the economically active population who during the reference period were:

  • 'Without work,' i.e. those who were not in paid employment or self-employment as specified by the ILOs definition of employment;
  • 'Currently available for work,' i.e. those who were available for paid employment or self-employment; and
  • 'Seeking work,' i.e. those who had taken specific steps in a specified recent period to seek paid employment or self-employment."9
Notably, "currently available for work should be based on the prevailing local market conditions, referring to the willingness to take up work for wage on locally prevailing terms, or readiness to undertake self employment given the necessary resources and facilities."10

The ILO relaxed the definition of unemployment in 1982 to account for "discouraged workers," which is applicable when a "group of workers do not actively seek work because they believe that no work corresponding to their skill is available in their area or at particular times of the business cycle."11

It is worth underscoring that the definitions do not take into account the severe economic conditions that characterize post-conflict settings, whereby neither the skills nor the market are likely to be sufficient enough to support a vibrant economy.

Informal employment

As noted by the ILO, "Employees are considered to have informal jobs if their employment relationship is, in law or in practice, not subject to national labour legislation, income taxation, social protection or entitlement to certain employment benefits..."12 The informal economy is part of the market economy and produces goods and services for sale through unregistered or unincorporated enterprises.13

The ILO differentiates informal employment from "underground production, illegal production and household production for own final use."14

There is difficulty in accumulating statistical data on informal economies and employment, because countries have different understandings of the definition of these issues. The ILO recommends the creation of "international guidelines in assisting countries in the development of national definitions of informal employment, and in enhancing the international comparability of the resulting statistics to the extent possible..."15 More formalized definitions and guidelines would give a more accurate picture of a country's employment situation, as well as allow economists to track global economic health and trends.

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Scholars Robert Chambers and Gordon Conway offer a widely accepted definition for livelihoods: "A livelihood comprises people, their capabilities and their means of living, including food, income and assets. Tangible assets are resources and stores, and intangible assets are claims and access. A livelihood is environmentally sustainable when it maintains or enhances the local and global assets on which livelihoods depend, and has net beneficial effects on other livelihoods. A livelihood is socially sustainable which can cope with and recover from stress and shock, and provide for future generations."16

Assets include:

  • Human capital, e.g. education, formal and informal skills, and health;
  • Natural capital, e.g. natural resources, such as farming and grazing land, forests and non-timber products, wildlife, and water;
  • Physical capital, e.g. shelter, infrastructure, such as roads and transport, buildings, irrigation systems, and productive assets, such as seed, tools, livestock, fishing gear, and other farm and processing equipment;
  • Financial capital, e.g. cash income and remittances, credit, savings in kind and cash;
  • Social capital, e.g. formal and informal institutions (including markets), associations (e.g. water users and savings and credit associations), extended families, and local mutual support mechanisms.17
Distinguishing jobs and livelihoods, the United Nations Development Programme clarifies that while a job "connotes one particular activity or trade that is performed in exchange for payment," and involves a formal agreement, with a contract, between an employer and employee, a livelihood "is engagement in a number of activities which, at times, neither require a formal agreement nor are limited to a particular trade," and livelihoods may or may not involve money. A job will likely comprise part of an overall livelihood, but does so only to complement other aspects of a livelihood portfolio. Jobs are "a means of living or of supporting life and meeting individual and community needs," while livelihoods are "self-directing."18

"Sustainable livelihoods provide meaningful work that fulfills the social, economic, cultural and spiritual needs of all members of a community-- human, non-human, present and future-- and safeguards cultural and biological diversity."19 However, employment and livelihood policies are typically centered on economic growth that is not necessarily pro-poor, rather than policies that promote human development.20

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Economic empowerment

In a United Nations Research Institute for Social Development (UNRISD) discussion paper, Naila Kabeer found that although definitions of empowerment may differ, they are all based on the concepts of power, capability, rights, interests, choices and control. "They place a great deal of emphasis on the significance of intangible 'resources'- voice, public presence, internal strength and confidence, collective organization, reflection and analytical skills, information, political participation and knowledge."21 Additionally, it is widely agreed that empowerment deals with change at all levels and in different domains- individual and community levels and in the family and public domains.22 According to Abdalla Gergis, Senior Research Fellow at the Botswana Institute for Development Policy Analysis, "Empowerment has been at the centre of a shift in thinking about economic development as a response to the failure of modernization and trickle down economics," with movement towards to idea of people-centered development.23 Go to Most Recent Evolutions

A World Bank report defines empowerment as the ability to make decisions that "influence a persons life trajectory and subsequent ability to exercise autonomy and make choices. Examples include decisions related to marriage, education, employment, and childbearing."24 The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) provides another definition that uses language similar to the World Bank, but highlights the concepts of skills development, self-reliance and independent decision making: "Empowerment implies people both women and men taking control over their lives by setting their own agendas, gaining skills (or having their own skills and knowledge recognized), increasing their self-confidence, solving problems, and developing self-reliance. It is both a process and an outcome. Empowerment implies an expansion in womens ability to make strategic life choices in a context where this ability was previously denied them."25 Put simply, empowerment is a process by which less powerful groups acquire control over their lives and increase their decision-making autonomy.26

However, definitions of empowerment are far from universal, because the term is applicable to so many situations and has many implications for policy. "Empowerment...is a complex and often misunderstood concept. It is located within the discourse of community development and is connected to concepts of self-help, participation, networking, and equity. While it has acquired a considerable aura of 'respectability,' even 'social status' within the vocabulary of development, it has not yet acquired a socially agreed content. It is also one of those concepts whose full implications people do not realized when they use it."27

Economic empowerment

Building upon the previous definition of empowerment, economic empowerment specifically means that less powerful groups "take responsibility for their own material gains on an on-going basis and become managers of their own development. As citizens gain awareness and self-confidence, they realize that they can be self-reliant in pursuing their own economic dreams."28 According to this definition, people should be encouraged through incentives and opportunities to become economically independent, but not necessarily protected from the potential negative consequences of poor economic decisions. According to Abdalla Gergis, "The overriding objectives of citizen economic empowerment should be the expansion of income (and employment) generating activities..."29

Youth empowerment

As stated in the UN, "Youth empowerment includes the participation of young men and women not only in decision-making, but also in society, through access to education, employment and health, as well as to resources, such as land or credit. The concept of youth empowerment concentrates on the growing opportunities for young people and their achievements in society, but recognizes that much of the potential is yet to be realized."30 Go to Debate: Youth participation

Empowerment and broader participation in decision-making processes can also facilitate the transition from youth to adulthood, which in many societies in developing countries means marrying and establishing independent households. When young people are, in effect, stuck in limbo between childhood and adulthood, the potential for disenfranchisement, frustration, and increased motivations for fighting are significantly increased. Thus, youth empowerment has important implications for peacebuilding.31 Go to Youth bulge

Women's empowerment

Within debates about women's empowerment, an Institute of Development Studies seminar, held in 2008 on the meanings of womens empowerment, concluded that womens empowerment is a "fuzzy concept." Meanings of empowerment from different institutions vary dramatically but, also, frequently overlap to the point that some participants fear that the concept has lost true its power.32

In a joint UN Inter-Agency Committee and Organisation on Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) paper on women and human security empowerment was defined as "both a process and a goal."33 Five components are thought to generally define women's empowerment:

  • Women's sense of self-worth;
  • Their right to have and to determine choices;
  • Their right to have access to opportunities and resources;
  • Their right to have the power to control their own lives, both within and outside the home;
  • Their ability to influence the direction of social change to create a more just social and economic order, nationally and internationally.34
Specifically related to employment, these components recognize that women should be empowered to have equal opportunities to education and decent work, as well as the right to affect political, social, and economic change within their societies.

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As underscored by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), "Youth is a problematic and ambivalent term. While age is the most straightforward criterion for defining youth, it is not necessarily the most significant one. Social and cultural considerations play an important role in defining the meaning of youth."35
Go to Debates: Youth participations; Actors: Youth and Definitions: Youth empowerment

The UN defines youth as persons between the ages of 15 and 24 years, meaning that anyone under the age of 15 is considered a child.36 While the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), which is considered to be a framework for international customary law for the most part (193 countries have ratified the CRC; the only two UN member states who have not ratified the CRC are the United States and Somalia),37 defines children as persons up to 18 years of age38 and most countries in the West similarly assume this construction.

The 18 years old marker for adulthood is essentially a Western construct: "...The idea of a single (gender neutral) age of legal maturity reflects the western juridical tradition and concepts of citizenship built around the universal franchise and eligibility for conscription into the army."39 However, traditional societies often have other understandings of youth and adulthood. Many African countries view adulthood as little to do with age, but rather the "physical capacity to perform acts reserved for adults,"40 such as marriage and the establishment of an independent household. "To be classified as a child means that a man has not achieved the level of economic importance that would permit him to acquire a wife, build his own compound and become an economically viable agent."41 Women are sometimes seen through different criteria, with motherhood symbolizing adulthood, or girls may never be fully considered as adults. Another construct is seen in some rural communities in Kenya, where youth is viewed as ending at 35 when persons become eligible for a presidency.42 However, scholar Alex De Waal argues that arbitrary measurements of adulthood are irrelevant, as the key point is that "youth is a category that is exploited by warmakers."43

In policy and the programming it informs, youth is often treated as homogeneous category that isolates this age group from the rest of society. However, "Youth is a complex reality-- not a generic label." UNDP underscores that approaches based on conceptions of youth as a self-defining, cohesive group are "informed by a stereotyped vision and therefore are bound to lead to flawed responses." Accordingly, youth strategies and programs must take the inherent complexity of the notion of youth as a social and functional construct into consideration.44

In the context of both conflict and underdevelopment, while early exposure to traumatic events associated with war can force children to face challenges far beyond what is normally expected of their years, their transition of youth to adulthood is severely compromised, lending cause to arguments that the concepts of adolescence and youth must reflect this fact. As stated by UNDP:

"If the notion of youth can be seen, to a large extent, as corresponding to a transition from childhood to adulthood, then it can be argued that a youth crisis is a situation where this transition is blocked, and the perspectives for transition to full adult status are seen as shrinking. Youth becomes stretched out if the economic and social statuses required for adulthood are unattainable for young adults. There is increasing evidence from different parts of the world that full adulthood is more and more difficult to achieve, due to social and economic constraints."45

Two key factors of this impaired transition are highlighted as the lack of education and the lack of employment opportunities.46 Additionally, barriers to employment, which prevent youth in "setting up a household and forming a family," can block the transition from adolescence to adulthood.47

1. International Labour Organization, "Resolution Concerning Statistics of the Economically Active Population, Employment, Unemployment and Underemployment, Adopted by the Thirteenth International Conference of Labour Statisticians," ILO, October 1982, and Eva Liu and Jackie Wu, "The Measurement of Unemployment and Underemployment" (Hong Kong: Research and Library Services Division, Legislative Council Secretariat, February 4, 1999), 4.
2. Liu and Wu, 4.
3. International Labour Organization, "Decent Work: The Heart of Social Progress," ILO.
4. ILO Crisis, "ILO Crisis Response and Reconstruction Programme," International Labour Organization.
5. ILO, "Resolution Concerning Statistics of the Economically Active Population, Employment, Unemployment and Underemployment."
6. Liu and Wu, 6,
7. Ibid., 5.
8. Ibid., 5.
9. Ibid., 5.
10. Ibid., 5.
11. Ibid., 6.
12. International Labour Organization, "Guidelines Concerning a Statistical Definition of Informal Employment," ILO, November 1, 2003, 3.
13. United Nations, "UN System-wide Policy Paper: Employment Creation, Income Generation and Reintegration in Post-Conflict Settings," (New York: United Nations, May 2008), 40.
14. ILO, "Guidelines Concerning a Statistical Definition of Informal Employment," 1.
15. Ibid.,1.
16. Robert Chambers and Gordon R. Conway, "Sustainable Rural Livelihoods: Practical Concepts for the 21st Century," IDS Discussion Paper 296 (Brighton: Institute of Development Studies, December 1991), 1.
17. United Nations Development Programme, "Sustainable Livelihoods and Emergencies" (New York: UNDP), 1.
18. Stockholm Environment Institute, "Implementing Sustainability: Sustainable Livelihoods: Definitions," SEI, and North American Regional Consultation on Sustainable Livelihoods, "Principles of Sustainable Livelihoods," January 13-15, 1995.
19. Stockholm Environment Institute, "Implementing Sustainability: Sustainable Livelihoods: Definitions."
20. Ibid.
21. Naila Kabeer, "The Conditions and Consequences of Choice: Reflections on the Measurement of Womens Empowerment," UNRISD Discussion Paper Number 108 (Geneva: United Nations Research Institute for Social Development, August 1999).
22. Kabeer, "The Conditions and Consequences of Choice: Reflections on the Measurement of Women's Empowerment," 13.
23. Abdalla Gergis, "Citizen Economic Empowerment in Botswana: Concepts and Principles," BIDPA Working Paper Number 22 (Gabarone: BIDPA, July 1999), 1.
24. Anju Malhotra, et al., "Measuring Women's Empowerment as a Variable in International Development," (Washington, D.C.: The World Bank, June 28, 2002).
25. United Nations Environment Programme, "Gender-related Terminology," UNEP.
26. United Nations ACC Inter-Agency Committee on Women and Gender Equality and Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development/Development Assistance Committee Working Party on Gender Equality, "Women's Empowerment in the Context of Human Security," (UN ACC and OECD/DAC, December 7-8, 1999).
27. Gergis, "Citizen Economic Empowerment in Botswana: Concepts and Principles," 5.
28. Ibid., 11.
29. Ibid.
30. United Nations, "The United Nations Youth Agenda: Empowering Youth for Development and Peace," Youth and the United Nations.
31. United Nations Development Programme, Youth and Violent Conflict: Society and Development in Crisis? (New York: UNDP, 2006), 23.
32. Institute of Development Studies, "News at IDS: Being Strategic About the Meanings of Womens Empowerment," IDS.
33. United Nations ACC Inter-Agency Committee and OECD/DAC Working Party on Gender Equality, "Women's Empowerment in the Context of Human Security."
34. United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, "Guidelines on Women's Empowerment," United Nations Population Information Network (POPIN).
35. UNDP, Youth and Violent Conflict: Society and Development in Crisis? 56.
36. United Nations, "Youth at the United Nations: Frequently Asked Questions," UN.
37. The Campaign for U.S. Ratification of the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), "Home," Child Rights Campaign.
38. United Nations General Assembly, "Convention on the Rights of the Child," General Assembly Resolution 44/25, November 20, 1989.
39. Alex De Waal, "Realising Child Rights in Africa: Children, Young People and Leadership," in Young Africa: Realising the Rights of Children and Youth, eds. Alex De Waal and Nicolas Argenti (Trenton: World Press, Inc., 2002), 9.
40. Afua Twum-Danso, "The Political Child," in Invisible Stakeholders: Children and War in Africa, ed. Angela McIntyre (South Africa: Institute for Security Studies, 2005), 12.
41. Ibid., 12.
42. Ibid., 13.
43. Alex De Waal, "Social Mobilization for Peace," in Demilitarizing the Mind: African Agendas for Peace and Security, ed. Alex De Waal (Trenton: Africa World Press, Inc., 2002), 107.
44. UNDP, Youth and Violent Conflict: Society and Development in Crisis? 74.
45. Ibid.,23.
[47] UNDP, Youth and Violent Conflict: Society and Development in Crisis? 23.
47. Freedman, David H. "Youth Employment Promotion: A Review of ILO Work and the Lessons Learned." International Labour Organization, Employment Strategy Department, 2005, 34.

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