Youth unemployment in Europe and the long quest for "Ithaka"

Young Europeans invest in their added value, learn skills, and unfortunately are unable to make their dreams come true while contributing to their country’s growth. How are these countries going to kickstart the sought-after growth when there are no opportunities, for employment or credit, for young people?

Ilektra Tsakalidou
5 July 2013

Ithaka. Flickr/Matt Hintsa. All rights reserved.

When in middle school our literature teacher first read us the poem “Ithaka” by Constantine P. Cavafy, I remember being moved by the elegance of his words. However, I did not immediately identify with the notion of having an “Ithaka”; as a young teen of dual nationality I believed that I would never get attached to one place. The world was my oyster.

A few years later, in university, one of my professors introduced me to the notion of the “Odysseus syndrome”, whereby after having spent some time abroad all Greeks are ultimately drawn back to the Metropolis; it was something that no one could escape. Being a curious and rather belligerent mind, I did not accept the generalization and decided to argue against it. After all, we are not all the same and Greece, back in 2007, was far from a paradise.

Today, at the beginning of my career, I see my peers looking for employment away from their respective homes and realize that for our generation the “quest for Ithaka” will be longer than that of our parents. Every day, I hear stories of young men and women from all over Europe either looking for a job and staying dependent on their parents, or materializing their business plans far away from the Old Continent.

Young Europeans invest in their added value, learn skills, and unfortunately are unable to make their dreams come true while contributing to their country’s growth.  Youth unemployment is at over 50% in southern Europe, and brain drain is the continent’s biggest threat. How are these countries going to kickstart the sought-after growth when there are no opportunities, for employment or credit, for young people?

Reading about government leaders agreeing at the European summit to invest €6 billion on youth training schemes, while expanding credit for small and medium enterprises by €10 billion, signals that the European leadership realize full well that if governments don’t invest in their youth, the economic disparity between northern and southern Europe will remain. The South will continue to lose its most productive basis, and in the meantime a glut of over-qualified young workers will be created in Germany or Scandinavian countries.

The amounts agreed during the summit may sound important, however, as European Parliament President Martin Schulz pointed out “they are a mere drop in the ocean”. In fact, the funds alone will not reverse the trend. Labour legislation should be revised to allow for more flexibility for employers and employees and the standards for allocation of funding ought to be strict. Europe is at the forefront of research and development, nevertheless, the access to credit is a barrier for researchers to realising their aspirations. Credit should therefore be allocated to young entrepreneurs open to performance assessments; it should be clear from the beginning that positive economic returns will enable them to be have lower interest rates on their loans. Austerity might have prompted mismanagement over sound investment, thus highlighting the need for accountability mechanisms.

However, in order for future young Europeans to find their way back to their respective “Ithaka”, the major change should come from a reform of educational systems from kindergarten to university. Creating a system that enables children and teenagers to develop their talents without being confined to a specific direction (either maths- or literature-oriented) will ultimately prove to be the greatest gift European decision makers can give to their constituents. Investing in language programmes will also be beneficial for European citizens, allowed to travel freely around the continent, and looking to trade globally. Furthermore, creating a strong professional education, while lifting the taboo over professional qualifications being looked down upon as inferior to university diplomas, will create a new base of young entrepreneurs looking to advance European industries.

“Keep Ithaka always in your mind.
Arriving there is what you are destined for.
But do not hurry the journey at all.
Better if it lasts for years,
so you are old by the time you reach the island,
wealthy with all you have gained on the way, not expecting Ithaka to make you rich.”   

Now, more than ever, Cavafy’s words resonate in my head. As a young European, I am preparing for a long and exciting journey where I will try, like many of my peers, to make my skills useful to the world.

Eventually, as my university professor predicted, I might be drawn to return to the place I have decided to call “home”. Hopefully by then, it will be filled with opportunities rather than despair. And the small base of people still working hard and succeeding in making their entrepreneurial dreams come true, will be joined by many others, including me. As Cavafy wrote to a “modern Odysseus”  like me, “As you set out for Ithaka hope the voyage is a long one, full of adventure, full of discovery”. May the journey begin…

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