Creating Opportunities for Young Europeans: It’s the Future, Stupid!

Posted on 08. January 2013

by Juliane Sarnes

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London shrank faster than any other financial centre in the world – and, ironically was much harder hit than Germany. It almost felt as if I was personally being punished for having left my country when it was down! Technically, I could have gone back home. In practice the free movement of labour is not without restrictions. My beloved restriction measured 180cm and spoke French. I chose to stay in London, taking part in the merciless rat race for ever-fewer jobs. In the UK, graduate programmes more than halved their intake. Many firms stopped recruiting altogether, posting on their websites the infamous “Unsolicited applications will not be accepted.” The Milk round hit a dry spell. Initiating young people into the labour force, training them up, paying them a salary? These were now unaffordable luxuries.

2009 – No milk (round) today! Youth unemployment in the EU

“We need people who hit the ground running!” “High potentials” now only included those with a first-class degree, at least three years of experience and the energy and/or resignation to work for two while being paid half. And if these weren’t available, companies would have to close up shop and move the jobs to Asia altogether. It’s the economy, stupid!

Economic crises usually go hand in hand with higher unemployment. And according to a recent study by the European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions (Eurofound), young people in Europe have been hit particularly hard by the recession with regard to their employment prospects. In the first quarter of 2011 the youth employment rate in Europe dropped to 32.9%, the lowest value ever recorded in the history of the European Union. Approximately five million young people were unemployed that year. Moreover, in some countries, completing tertiary education no longer lowers the risk of unemployment compared to having no qualifications. This is not only the case for a few southern and eastern periphery countries, but for Denmark and Finland too. If the protection effect of higher education is no longer a given, why invest all the time and money in the first place? For many well-educated youngsters the crisis is at best mass-producing “spotty résumés” showing jumps from one temporary job to another. Employers recoil in horror. But they don’t know the horror of trying to pay off a student loan on minimum wage…

As the months wore on, my patience wore thin. Again and again I had to explain why I was choosing unemployment in London over an indeterminate long-distance relationship. And sometimes at night, I had to explain it to myself, too. Was I really such a romantic fool? Was I throwing away years of education for love? But, then again, why should I have to throw away love for a job? How much of the no-strings-attached flexibility the labour market demands can a society cope with before this process of “career atomisation” finally leads to its demise? Eventually, my persistence – and good education – paid off. After six immensely troubling months, having weathered the week-long interview process and seemingly endless aptitude and motivational tests, I prevailed over 104 competitors. I had my first real job! Thousands like me were not as fortunate.

2012 – Spilt milk? Are we a “lost generation”?

It is not by chance that the cohorts of youths entering the increasingly competitive labour market during the crisis and in its aftermath have been labelled “a lost generation”. Between 2008 and 2011, the percentage of young people out of work for a year or more, as a portion of the overall work force, doubled across OECD countries, making young people one of the demographic groups most at risk of long-term unemployment. It means that young people are facing longer periods of joblessness during a very critical phase in their employment careers. This can have a “scarring effect”, jeopardizing long-term earnings and career paths, affecting them for the rest of their lives (OECD Employment Outlook 2012).

While the situation is tough for everyone, it is even bleaker for those with lower levels of education and skills who are being crowded out by those with higher degrees desperate enough to take on any coffee shop job as long as it pays the bills. Particular concerning is the growing number of youths who are not in employment, education or training (NEET). Across the OECD countries, the NEET rate rose 1 percentage point between 2008 and 2011 to 16.4 per cent. The OECD report also warns of potential skill depreciation, loss of self-worth and motivation to the point that the unemployed choose not to, or are unable to enter the workforce even after the economic recovery is complete and demand is restored. This deterioration of the labour force could lead to higher structural unemployment in the future. Flashback: East German small town after the collapse of the local economy!

Lost is only what we give up! Why not create a European Youth Employment Taskforce? Read more in my latest article in the SE Journal.