Europe, are we there yet? / The future of Europe is not that grim

Posted on 03. September 2014

by Elias Vartio

elias-vartio-modifiedThe banks have been saved. The savers have been saved. The investors have been saved.

While it may seem that the world is going crazy, it is also still at relative peace. Just like it was in the 1930s, when less than a decade had passed since the Great Crash of 1929. Our Black Tuesday was the fall of Lehmann Brothers in 2008, or the unravelling of Greece’s deep economic troubles in 2010. We can sigh with relief; we have avoided World War III. Yet, at what cost has the financial stability been achieved?

Cuts have been made throughout the continent as austerity measures have been perceived as the right way to go. After all, we cannot live on debt forever. In the south this meant substantial cuts on education, public healthcare and personal accounts, creating circumstances that, in many ways, resemble a country at war or under occupation. People are hungry, medicines are hard to get a hold of, and yet this is no war, it’s just an economic crisis and perhaps a profound system failure. However, in a certain way this may be even trickier than war. During an armed conflict a desire for peace or absence of war is a very straightforward dream to have. Now, as the threat is so much more abstract and complex and yet, at the same time, tangible in its consequences, the prospects of a ‘victory’ or a more secure future is harder to both imagine and foresee. In the north, cuts on different direct and indirect tax deductions have been made. Old promises have been broken, and we are required to adjust. In hindsight, the politics of the seven fat years seem just as irresponsible as some of the economic policies witnessed now during the seven thin years.

Throughout the continent, the demographical figures highlight the alarming rates of an aging population, indicating that it will be the younger generation that will have to bear a heavier burden. While the politicians appear to be mostly concerned about the diminishing workforce and the need for keeping the aging population at work for a longer period of time, statistics show staggering levels of youth unemployment. Young people are needed to keep society running and yet society seems to be struggling with how to integrate and make room for the new generations. People may eventually find their place in society, but they may just as well get tired of it all before that happens. In the worst case scenario this could lead to apathy and despair. In the best case scenario this means young people will seek their fortune elsewhere. Brain drainage, some call it. I’d prefer to focus on the positive and human side of it i.e. exciting possibilities and adventures in far-away places. I have heard that Australia is good, as is Chile.

Today, it feels as if we are still far from the path leading back to growth. It appears that in many ways we have become the victims of our own success. In the 1970s we had a dream of providing everyone with the possibility to enjoy higher education. Now we have achieved that dream. On paper, we have a more highly qualified labour force than ever before. But from the individual’s viewpoint, a college education is either unnecessary or useless – depending on the perspective – as it is no longer a guarantee for a secure future. Lacking the right education may keep the doors closed, but having an education is no longer the key for a better life.  Today you’re equally qualified to do the dishes with a PHD-degree as you are with a high-school diploma. Furthermore, we have created a system where it is not always sensible to work and thus perhaps, contributed to a generation of young people that do not know how or where to belong.  The way has been paved with good intensions – of decreasing public spending and of making the society more efficient. Too bad that not everyone can no longer fit into the society we have created. We have become so efficient and smart that the individuals – the barber, the smith and the farmer – have become mere consumers, tax payers and people on the dole.

It has been nearly six years since the declared bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers in September 2008 and around seven years since the onset of the US subprime mortgage crisis. I personally believe that we should feel privileged to still live in a Europe where widespread armed conflict is absent. But so did a lot of Europeans in the relative peace of the 1930s, six or seven years after Black Tuesday. And unfortunately we all know what horrors were then to follow, in Europe and Asia alike.

Who knows what will happen to us in 2015, 2016 or 2017? If we are lucky, the future of Europe is not that grim. After all, the banks have been saved. The savers have been saved. And the investors have been saved, and so far much of the stability has been saved. The question is: have we been saved?

Disclaimer: This text was originally produced in the spring, before the recent escalations in eastern Ukraine. Today, 3 September 2014, Russia and Ukraine agreed on a ‘permanent ceasefire’. Peace has returned to eastern Ukraine… For now, at least.