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Are we sleepwalking into a lost generation?

Youth unemployment in Europe is a social bomb waiting to explode, and yet another proof of the EU’s lack of vision. So what is there to be done?

Flickr/Jelena Prtoric. Some rights reserved.
Flickr/Jelena Prtoric. Some rights reserved.

A couple of weeks ago, I was at a wedding in Milan. The groom was 33 and the bride 28; accordingly the crowd was young, with most guests in their mid-twenties to early thirties. Conversations with new friends were well under way, champagne helping, when it transpired that I live in the UK. Immediately, the conversation moved from chitchat to a more serious topic – the dire situation of youth employment in Italy and what a young Italian can do to escape it.

Questions abounded: how is it in the UK? Is it worth coming over? How many months (years?) of unpaid internships should one expect before getting a stable job and income? Unsurprisingly, the topic was of general interest, and every guest seemed to have his or her own tale of precarity to tell.

Gianma had been unemployed for two years, growing increasingly frustrated with having to rely on his parents' financial support to complement the meagre wages earned in whatever temp catering jobs were available. Rebecca was a translator who'd been going back and forth between office internships and freelance work for almost three years now, being treated miserably most of the time and with little hope of her situation improving anytime soon. The one who seemed to have the best situation was Carlo, a mechanic – stable job, decent pay. I asked him if he thought it would last. 'No', he replied, 'because more and more young Italians are going back to manual jobs when they can't find anything else.'

The point here is not to accumulate sob stories but to remind us that, despite most European leaders' rush to announce that the worst of the financial crisis is behind us, the fate of hundreds of thousands of young Europeans is still worryingly uncertain. Europe-wide, unemployment rates for those under 25 show no sign of improvement (39.5 percent in Italy, 26 in France, over 55 in Hungary and a record 56.1 percent – that's 883 thousand people - in Spain), and the few measurettes implemented by national governments or European bodies to counteract this trend have been far too timid to be effective. Today, the result is that almost 15 million Europeans below the age of 30 are neither employed, nor in education or training. 15 million – almost the size of the population of the Netherlands.

Economically absurd, morally wrong

It is a strange paradox, 'un beau gâchis' the French would say, that there have never been so many highly-educated and technically capable young people in Europe, with so little work given them to do.

But perhaps even more interesting is the fact that almost none of the economic and social models of the past (laissez-faire capitalism in the UK, generous Southern European welfare states, nor indeed the otherwise successful Scandinavian model) have been able to resist the tidal wave of youth unemployment. Of course, one of the few countries to dodge the trend has been Germany which mostly thanks to its dual educational system has kept its youth unemployment rate under eight percent. This, however, has come at the price of generally low wages, labour 'pre-destination' very early on and under-investment in higher education. But, the German exception aside, it is undeniable that the risk of a European 'lost generation' is very real, and hasn't received the attention it should, by far.

Certainly, the young are not the only ones to have been hit hard by a struggling economy, but they have been a particularly easy target for the austerity measures implemented by most European governments. Politically under mobilised and unorganised, youngsters are much easier to pick on than, say, baby-boomers, whose demographic weight translates to a political power most governments are reluctant to confront. Examples abound – from increases in uni-fees to diminished financial support during the formative years and tacit support for employer practices that disproportionately affect the young and inexperienced (such as 'zero-hour' type contracts or abusively unpaid internships). The result is that, all over Europe, the young have been made to pay much more than their share for a crisis that they had no responsibility for causing.

An illustration of this flat-out unfair treatment recently came from France. Did you know that François Hollande's government just passed a particularly unjust overhaul of the national pensions system? During the 2012 presidential campaign, Hollande ran on a platform centred on the French youth, promising to revive a 'French dream' of education and employment for all and calling for a broad cross-generational effort to get out of la crise. Only a year later, the new reform does anything but – preserving the benefits of those who are already retired or will retire in the next few years, while putting a much heavier burden on those who (theoretically) enter the job market now. (The reform does contain some favourable measures such as a mechanism to buy back formative years to make them count as years of contributions, but in this case the 'exchange rate' is too steep for the swap to be an incentive).

As the general secretary of France's biggest student union put it, for the young this reform promises that they will "be unemployed today only to receive a terrible – or no - pension tomorrow". In traditional French fashion, students took to the streets - along with most unions - on 10 September, to protest against a left-wing government they overwhelmingly supported in the 2012 election, but whose policies have proved to be a disappointment. The reform was nevertheless passed by the parliament.

What we learn from this example is that despite stated intentions, European governments are unwilling (or simply unable) to maintain a social contract that can be fair to the younger members of their societies. But what about the European Union? Its first and foremost purpose is to deal with the trends that affect all European citizens and youth unemployment by any stretch of the imagination must count as one of these. Could this be the issue everyone in Brussels was waiting for to once and for all demonstrate what they can do to an unimpressed public?

Catastrophe around the corner

If this was an opportunity, so far it's been missed. Despite, again, stated intentions (most recently in Barroso's State of the Union address), and the EU's good old strategy of promising to throw money at a problem until it goes away with no consideration for what caused the problem in the first place (a resounding success in Greece or re the Common Agricultural Policy) – nothing has been done. But unless the European Union and its member states accept that the present crisis, and resulting massive youth unemployment, are the consequence of a de-embed, extractive form of capitalism that preys on those who don't have enough economic or political capital to protect themselves, the situation can only get worse.

After inaction, what comes next could very well be action in the wrong direction. Next year will see the election of a new European parliament and, according to most predictions, it will be a mostly Eurosceptic and anti-social Europe one – with UKIP and like-minded parties across Europe sweeping into Brussels and Strasbourg. This matters because for all its flaws, the EU has at least tried to implement some measures to counterbalance the excesses of its neoliberal motor. And, even more importantly, in today's Europe, the EU is the only political institution that could potentially give reckless capitalism a run for its money, and finally give the European people – starting with the youth - the treatment they deserve.

Clearly, we are not there yet, and social Europe is still at an early stage of development. But this is no reason to throw the baby out with the bathwater. These parties, surfing on a wave of often legitimate Euroscepticism, have made their intentions clear: get rid of directives relating to working conditions, health care or equal treatment in employment, limit economic transfers, not to mention slowing down the Bologna process (which ensures that for example an Italian BA is recognised as such in Poland or in the UK) and making cuts to Erasmus.

Their end game is obvious - abort the embryo of social Europe before the most vulnerable realise it plays overwhelmingly in their favour, and prevent the emergence of European solidarity - and it must be impeached. Not out of sympathy for the EU (because at the moment it is nothing but a frustrating mess) but for what it could provide in the future in terms of social protection at a time when European states have walked away from their obligations towards their weakest citizens..

Don't disappoint us

The causes of the recent rise of populism and EU-bashing are many and interwined, and I will not attempt to cover them here again. Suffice it to say that these causes - and the toxic rhetoric of the populist movements - will not disappear if we carry on with business as usual. If you allow me to speak on a more personal note, what I find really striking (and disappointing) is that the arguments and propositions of those who want to make Europe better, more social and more inclusive – and there are certainly many – have been so timid, especially given the electoral catastrophe looming just around the corner for European progressives.

Nowhere have I heard what their suggestions to improve Europe are; and I've got no idea (do they?) of what Europe will look like in 2020 if they stay in charge. In this context, it is very hard – naive even – to call for European citizens to vote in the 2014 election. We just don't know what's on the table! And that's a problem that really needs to be addressed.

So to put it bluntly: if you want to avoid a further social catastrophe, it is really more than time to come up with a coherent and strong institutional proposal for the European Union. Make us dream with a Europe that defends its citizens against global capitalism, a Europe that is democratic, inclusive and that cares about us. There are many ways to institutionalise these ambitions (a stronger parliament, mechanisms of direct democracy, a European social safety net etc), and it's time to put them on the table. Only then will the European youth believe in the European political project – at least enough to vote in the upcoming election and contribute to building this more perfect Union.

To ignore these demands and carry on with the status quo is surely a dangerous gamble for the EU. Its leaders should bear in mind that the disappointed and unheard young European of today is the Eurosceptic of tomorrow.

Are you European, under 25 and willing to share your perspective? - please get in touch at europe@opendemocracy.net

About the author

David Krivanek is an Associate Editor of openDemocracy, and edits the digitaLiberties debate. He was previously editor of Can Europe Make It?, and currently works for an international organisation in Beirut.


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