Commentary by Timothy Leon Misir (Policy and Programme Executive, EU Centre)
June 2011 – A wave of civic protest is sweeping across the European Union (EU), one that is largely composed of the young, educated and unemployed. Referred to many as a new ‘lost generation’, these European youth have come of age at a time of social and economic upheaval and many are disillusioned with their prospects for the future and feel abandoned by the political establishment, especially with the dearth of job opportunities. Though many of them are highly educated, many are working in positions they are overqualified and underpaid for, while at the same time, many others are prevented from entering higher education as a result of cuts in public spending that has affected education budgets in many European countries.[i] Austerity measures mean that government expenditure has to be reeled in, and with public funds being channelled elsewhere, including dealing with the lingering sovereign debt crisis, cuts in spending had to be made in other sectors – education was particularly hit. So were spending in health and other social services.
The youth are particularly affected by the effects of the global financial crisis and the sovereign debt crisis in the EU, with significant social consequences tied to long-term youth unemployment. The unemployment rate in the EU-27 stands at 9.4%. The youth unemployment rate (16-24 years of age) however, stands at 19.6%. Greece (36.1%) and Lithuania (34.1%) have very high youth unemployment rates, but the worst can be found in Spain (44.4%).[ii] Just five years ago, the youth unemployment rate was 26% in Greece, 19.7% in Spain, and 15.7% in Lithuania.[iii]
Early school leavers account for only 14.4% in the EU-27,[iv] but while higher education might provide an advantage to job-seekers entering the labour market, European economies are in a bad shape, and educational qualifications are no longer a guarantee of employment upon graduation. A stagnant economy has made finding a job all the more difficult and there is a lack of opportunities for those entering the job market. The growing ageing population and the trend of raising retirement ages to delay the withdrawal of pensions further compound the problems.
Many youths are now turning to apprenticeships and trades, favouring employment over further education. There has also been a proliferation of internships and temporary contracts, and in the current economic climate many seem willing to work for less. These positions are taken up by those unable to find a permanent job upon graduation, while others remain jobless. Employers have no obligations to workers on these contracts and during an economic downturn or recession, those on temporary contracts are the first ones laid-off. In most cases, employers are not obliged to contribute to pension funds and provide health insurance to individuals on such contracts.[v]
Increasingly disillusioned with the state of affairs, the youths are starting to make their voices heard across the continent. Madrid, Paris, Lisbon, Athens and London have been the sites of the largest protests led by young people, but smaller demonstrations have been taking place in Rome, Berlin and other cities, feeding off the energy and debate generated by the larger demonstrations against austerity, adamant that their voices be heard by the political elite as they take to the streets demanding change. Europe has not seen such high levels of involvement and solidarity amongst the youth since 1968, with a movement that transcends borders having been generated and sustained through social and alternative media.
The recent surge in youth activism has been partly credited to the popularity of the publication “Indignez-vous!” (“Be Outraged”), a 32-page pamphlet by 93 year-old war veteran and co-drafter of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Stéphane Hessel.[vi] A resistance fighter who once escaped the Nazi concentration camp at Buchenwald, he is now leading the resistance of another generation, providing them inspiration and hope with his pamphlet that has tapped into public sentiment and provided impetus for an EU-wide movement in calling for social justice and the younger generation to end their indifference through non-violent action and solidarity, despite the growing inequality across the EU. Published in France in 2010, it has since sold over 1.5 million copies and has been translated into 9 languages, with others planned.
The previous generation of political leaders in member states across the EU have been overwhelmingly rejected in recent national elections, but the new one are in a similarly tough position in addressing the situation as job creation is proving difficult in the current economic climate, where European economies are not diverse enough and growing fast enough or to accommodate growing numbers of graduates, especially compared to markets outside the West, who are emerging out of the global financial crisis in a much better position. The sentiment among many that citizens are being treated as mere economic digits in the pursuit of growth, and that the social dimension has being neglected as a result. There is a feeling that this generation of youth is paying for the excesses of the generation before, and that most will never get to enjoy the same prosperity that the previous generation did. In an environment dominated by unbridled capitalism, they feel that existing political institutions and their political leaders can do little, leading many to feel alienated and abandoned by the political system. Taking to the streets and demonstrating is the only way they feel that their voices can be heard.
This combination of events will certainly have a great influence on the form and direction the EU will take as it negotiates its various crises. How will this transnational solidarity across the EU evolve, and what changes can be expected as this new lost generation makes their voices heard? Would a new social compact be forged as the young fight back, and what is the way forward for the EU and its citizens?
[i] Lowrey, Annie. “Europe’s New Lost Generation” in Foreign Policy. Web, 13 July 2009.
[ii] Eurostat: April 2011 figures (Eurostat News Release 76/2011, 31 May 2011).
[iii] European Commission (DG Employment, Social Affairs & Equal Opportunities), Employment in Europe 2006.
[iv] European Commission, Early School Leavers: Questions and Answers (Memo/11/52, 2011). Early school leavers are defined by the EU as “people aged 18-24 who have only lower secondary education or less and are no longer in education or training”.
[v] Perlin, Ross. Intern Nation (New York: Verso, 2011) & Comparative Perspectives Database Working Paper Series at the Gender and Work Database (http://www.genderwork.ca/cpdworkingpapers/) for individual case studies of precarious employment and vulnerable workers in Sweden, Germany, France, Ireland, UK and the Netherlands.
[vi] Hessel, Stéphane. Indignez-Vous! (Montpellier: Indigene, 2010). English translation: “Time for Outrage” in The Nation, 7-14 Mar 2011.
Note: This commentary previously appeared in the July 2011 Issue of EUCIasia, the regional newsletter for European Union Centres and Institutes in East Asia. Available here.