No Country for Young People

On the 15th of July 2020, we celebrated World Youth Skills Day. This day was created in 2014 by the General Assembly of the UN, with the goal of recognising and promoting the skills of young people across the world. This year, the overview of this situation is particularly alarming. The COVID-19 pandemic and lockdown measures led to the worldwide closure oftechnical and vocational education and training (TVET) institutions, threatening the continuity of skills development.

Currently, it is estimated that nearly 70% of the world’s learners are affected by school closures across all education levels. This has worsened a situation that was already deteriorating. As a UN reportaffirms, prior to the current crisis, young people aged 15-24 were already three times more likely to be unemployed than adults and often faced a prolonged school-to-work transition period. In post-COVID-19 societies, as young people are called upon to contribute to the recovery effort, they will need to be equipped with the skills to successfully manage evolving challenges and the resilience to adapt to future disruptions.

The situation in Europe

The situation is even more worrying when it comes to Europe if we compare it with that of the US, for example. While the US is performing better with regard to total unemployment, which was around4% in 2018 compared to 7.2% in the EU, the difference becomes much greater when we talk about youth unemployment. In 2019, youth unemployment in the US was around 8%, while it was around 15% in the EU. These figures are even more shocking in theeurozone.

This is not to say that we should be looking to move towards the American model. These statistics should also consider the type of contract (with precarious work being more common in the US) and include social expenses such as welfare, which, in the EU, plays a major role, if compared to the US. Nevertheless, the point is to show how bad the situation is in the EU, with more than 3.3 million young people (aged 15-24) currently living without a job. A separate and perhaps more severe problem that needs to be taken into account is that of the so-called NEETs, young people who are ‘neither in employment nor in education or training’. There were 5.5 million people who met these criteria in the EU in 2018.

The situation at a national level varies greatly and in some countries, the youth unemployment figures are even more tragic. The countries in the worst situation are Greece (33.8%), Spain (30.9%), Italy (27.7%), France (20.8%) and Sweden (20.3%). Even in Luxembourg, one of Europe’s more affluent countries, youth unemployment is over 15%. At the other end of the spectrum, there are countries like Germany and the Netherlands whose youth unemployment is stable, at around 6-7%. Particular attention should also be given to gender statistics, especially in the Mediterranean region where it seems that, even among new generations, there are more men working than women (see the second table). To sum up, the situation is drastic. In the EU, about one youngster out of every seven is unemployed, and this increases to more than one out of four in countries like Italy, Spain and Greece. Let us not forget that all this data (from the OECD) refers to 2019. The situation is worsening since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic.

Mario Draghi’s recent words at the Rimini Meeting

In a recent speech at the Rimini Meeting, the former European Central Bank President Mario Draghi stressed how the policies of the European Union relating to young people have been completely insufficient over the last number of decades. He stressed how the situation created by the pandemic will only worsen young people’s burden, as the debt created with programs such as the Recovery Fund -which are necessary to face the crisis- will be mainly repaid by the new generations. Draghi declared:

There is also a moral imperative to make this choice and to make it well: the debt created by the pandemic is unprecedented and will have to be repaid mainly by those who are young today. It is, therefore, our duty to equip them with the means to service that debt, and to do so while living in improved societies. For years, a form of collective selfishness has led governments to divert attention and resources towards initiatives that generated guaranteed and immediate political returns. This is no longer acceptable today.

Furthermore, Draghi insisted that the attitude of the past decades was wrong and that far more resources should be spent on education and training.

We need to support young people by investing in their education and training. Only then, with the clear conscience of those who have fulfilled their own responsibilities, will we be able to say to the youngest in society that the best way to find your direction in the present is to design your future.

Of course, these words find us in agreement. One could reply to Draghi that he could have used his influence as a President of the ECB to change things, but this would miss the real problem. The point is that these vague commitments are not sufficient anymore.

Let’s start with one consideration. Young people do not need someone to tell them how to design their future. They do not need a model imposed by the older generations and they do not want (nor should they) follow the rules of this society. Today's society has failed miserably in its main duty: to lay the foundations today for young people to have a future tomorrow. Let us look, first of all, at education. The importance of a well-organized and efficient school system is still not fully understood.

Just think of the school in the last 100 years: nothing has changed. In most European educational institutions, lessons are still organized on a frontal basis. The teacher who, instead of "extracting" from his students, as the etymology of the term "educate" would suggest, is found atop their chair, facing rows of students, reminiscent of an army full of purely theoretical notions. The most important factor appears to be uniformity, without considering the different inclinations of individuals and without developing their critical thinking skills. In schools, there is a lack of attention to the current and imminent problems of our planet which affect all of us, such as environmental issues. Luckily, it is the young people themselves who are sensitive on the issue and, with their “Fridays for future”, have perhaps taught something to previous generations who had little respect for the planet, happy to continue their selfish practices at the expense of future generations. At the same time, the cost of education has also risen in many countries and the difference between “A” and “B” schools has never been greater. The best schools can only be attended by those who can afford it, when in fact, a higher education level must be guaranteed to everyone.

Simply improving the school system, however, is not enough. Over the last 30-40 years, important changes have taken place making the working situation far more difficult for new generations. Working hours increased in many countries, the job market became much more competitive with globalisation, and the amount of skill required to enter this market also increased dramatically. The kind of work a young person can obtain is often temporary, with few guarantees and even fewer welfare benefits. Even wages, which of course have increased due to inflation, are lower than the relative average for previous generations. All of this has happened in a society which focuses on profit, where inequality increases continuously and rich people became even richer during the pandemic. And, even more importantly, it has occurred in a society which is treating our planet without respect and is putting at stake our future and that of our children.

How can we solve the problem?

What is needed now is far more than a mere increase in investment. That is no longer sufficient. We need a complete paradigm shift. A new model. We must begin by acknowledging that a decent standard of life, a good education and a life without worries of not making ends meet are not things that someone should have to achieve. They are fundamental human rights that should be guaranteed to everyone. This new model cannot be provided by people like Mr Draghi who built the old one. The new generations have to build a different society based on different visions of the word. A society where working is part of your life but means a very different thing from the rigid conception of work we have today. We need a fair number of working hours, which allow free time, family time and time for health-related activities such as exercise. We need a society which encourages people to experiment with new ways of working and not that drags everybody into the acceptance of old conceptions. Smart-working is the perfect example. In many European countries, the organisation of work is still an old, outdated vision of long office hours. It took the arrival of a worldwide pandemic to make the old, ruling class understand what was already indicated by many studies for years: people who work at home do not work less. If anything, they work more, by having more control and thus, working more productively. It is for this reason that smart working should also be regulated, and people should not be forced to be reachable at any time. Productivity is not determined, especially in the long run, by the number of hours worked. It is actually demonstrable (and it is intuitive, perfectly rational) that, in the long run, working more than 6 hours per day leads to a drastic decrease in productivity. A happy person, with a balanced life, will work better. Four to six hours of focused work are far more valuable than 8 to 12 hours which has become the norm at many companies.

It is also necessary to intervene in initial employment relationships, such as internships, which employers regularly abuse. Thousands of companies have a turnover of competent young people with precarious contracts because they cost less than an employee with a permanent contract. This is called exploitation and is justified by saying that it is young people who do neither want to work for next to nothing, nor learn a trade. This, however, is simply not fair. It is absolutely correct that a competent worker, regardless of age, has a stable job and a decent salary. Nobody would willingly work for €500 a month and with the sword of Damocles at their throat, due to the fact that they do not know if their contract will be renewed or not.

New jobs must then be created. Several studies have shown that there is no link between raising the retirement age and youth unemployment for young people, as many right-wing parties in Europe want us to believe. A smarter approach would instead be that of a gradual reduction in working hours (and salary) after a certain age and up to retirement, perhaps at the same time carrying out tasks to help prepare the new generations to take over. This would make it possible to use the training of more experienced workers to pass on their knowledge to young people. At the same time, it would ensure that young people receive adequate preparation, as well as economic and employment stability

All of these ideas are necessary paradigm shifts that are needed to build the new world that the recovery funds have given us a chance to build. But even more importantly, society needs to be ruled with a focus on more than sheer economic gain. Being sustainable from an environmental point of view is far more important. Not all economic growth is good growth, especially if this is at the cost of the environment, or if it benefits only a small proportion of the population. The old story of the bigger cake is better for everyone has proved to be historically wrong. Working conditions and standards of living for workers can decrease even when there is economic growth. This change can be brought about only by the new generations who understand what is not working in the old world. These new generations are ready to change it.