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“Youth Unemployment Is Symptomatic of How the Social Fabric Works in Europe“


The youth unemployment crisis may have coincided with the euro crisis, but it has deeper roots and is longer-lasting. Claire Dhéret, head of the “Social Europe & Well-Being” program at the European Policy Center, Beata Nagy, director of the “Job Act Europe” initiative, and Brando Benifei, an Italian MEP, discuss causes and solutions.

Artwork © Claude Cadi

Claire Dhéret, we heard a lot of alarming numbers on youth unemployment when the eurocrisis was in full swing. Is that still the case, or have things got better? And what’s the situation right now?
Dhéret: It is true that youth unemployment gained a lot of political attention on the policy agenda a few years ago, in the middle of the crisis. But it is also true that political attention is decreasing a little bit now.
At the European Policy Center, we have been very active on youth unemployment for a number of years. We had a task force looking specifically at the implementation of the “Youth Guarantee” across Europe and we now have a substantial pool of knowledge on the issue of youth unemployment. I now believe that it is time to take the debate beyond the usual Brussels suspects and to connect and engage with different stakeholders, in particular at the national and local levels.
The employment prospects of young people have indeed improved. Looking at the EU-28 countries, figures from November 2017 show that the youth unemployment rate was slightly above 16 percent. The situation is slightly worse looking at the eurozone—there, the rate was 18.2 percent in November 2017. These improvements reflect a positive trend that we have observed in the overall labor market in Europe.
But there is a need to look beyond aggregate figures and treat them with a certain degree of caution. First, because I think that it is extremely important to also look at how these positive developments are distributed among the younger generation. We still see that there are strong and important variations across countries. We have levels of youth unemployment that are still above 30 percent in some countries, in particular in Southern Europe. It is also very important to look specifically at the issue of long-term unemployment among the younger generation, because we see that it is really rather difficult to integrate young people who are distant from the labor market. The share of long-term unemployment has not decreased significantly.
Another important aspect is the share of involuntary temporary employment. In 2016 more than 40 percent of young workers worked under temporary contracts, which is a major difference from the rest of the population. There is also a gender dimension—young females are more often affected by involuntary temporary unemployment than young males. Reports and studies also agree that there are very important social determinants. Lower education levels play a major role, of course—60 percent of early school leavers are either unemployed or inactive. And migration matters a lot as well.
But I think we should also look at the impact on social cohesion in Europe. In my view, the level of youth unemployment is also symptomatic of how our social model and the social fabric work in Europe. It also shows to some extent that social mobility remains limited: Young people coming from poor families face more difficulties climbing the social ladder.
I think it also raises a number of questions with respect to our education system. We see that particularly in some member states the education system fails to provide a swift transition into the labor market and fails to equip young people with the skills that are needed. Some studies, for instance some recent data from PISA, show that the share of pupils with a very low level of skills in science and reading is on the rise, which is in my view something that we should put into perspective when we talk about youth unemployment.

You say there is improvement. What is the main reason for that? Is it something the EU did, or is it something that happened in the national states?
Dhéret: I think that both aspects are related. For instance, the Council made this recommendation for the “Youth Guarantee” in 2013, and linked some funding mechanisms to the implementation of the Youth Guarantee at the national level; of course, that encouraged member states to rethink their strategies in the fight against youth unemployment, and pushed them to take up some EU recommendations. So when we look at the situation and public discourse at the member state level, the role of the EU is not necessarily very visible, but I believe that all the efforts made by the European Commission and the attention it has placed on youth unemployment have helped to shift the debate and to force and encourage member states to take some action.

Beata Nagy, have you noticed increased activities on the part of the EU? What is your view on the problem of youth unemployment?
Nagy: I come from the practical side. Our JobAct is a project for unemployed people. It began in 2006 in Germany. This is a long-term project; we’re working with young people, doing art and theater. We can see a difference between 2006 and now, because in 2006 we worked with a lot of young people, and now in Germany we only work with long-term unemployed youth.
We started to expand to Europe two years ago, and now we are in contact with some southern European countries like Spain, Italy, Greece, and Hungary. The situation there is completely different from Germany.
Since we’ve expanded, we’ve had a better picture of the unemployment and we are very motivated to go forward with our idea. We believe the education system has to be renewed. We need a new form of education, and this is artistic education. I think education today is a little bit outdated, and not only for the unemployed. It is also outdated for the employed. We work in summer camps with mixed groups, with unemployed young people and young people who study, and the problem is the same: The balance is too much on professional qualifications—they have to learn really early to think in one direction and to specialize. The education system completely disregards the personal development of each student.
I believe that real learning processes can only begin when you are motivated and you come up with your own questions, when you are interested, when you have a connection with the material. I see it in my own children too—they are only interested in topics if they can be motivated. This is possible when you do art.

Bruno Benifei, how serious is the situation now? We’ve discussed how it’s improved. Would a new kind of approach to education be part of the answer?
Benifei: I was working on the European Solidarity Corps—it isn’t something that’s going to solve the occupational issue in the European Union, but it is something that can create new opportunities, including opportunities to learn the kind of soft skills that are such an important issue. We are talking about fostering a spirit of solidarity among young people in terms of voluntary work and internships and jobs. I have been focusing on that a lot because in the end you have people being treated as volunteers who in reality are workers. We need to avoid this kind of exploitation.
I also want to mention the soft skills because one of the possible effects of having a lost generation is the risk of damages that aren’t immediately perceivable, both to the long-term unemployed, inactive young people, and to society as a whole. For example, we look at young people who have been long-term unemployed, they usually lose their soft skills to organize their life around a job, they can get into drug dependencies more easily, addictions or develop mental health problems. In some areas of the European Union, they tend more toward criminal behaviors than elsewhere.
The situation is still uneven. In some European countries, to talk about a lost generation or youth unemployment is like a fantasy. I come from Italy, where in some areas we have two percent youth unemployment, but in other parts we have Greece-style unemployment rates. So it is also about regional divides.
But it is also about discussing the future. I want to put this on the table: Our effective cohesion policies, our implementation of the European Fund, is that enough? I am in doubt, to be frank. Let us not only look at the existing huge differences, but also at the impact of long-term unemployment, because the costs to society and the state are so huge—much higher than for increasing investment in better public employment services and mobility experiences.
The existing European programs have huge problems reaching the young people who need support to reenter the labor market the most. On the Youth Guarantee, the youth unemployment initiative, we approved the Guarantee in the last plenary. The problem is that it’s not European; it is based on national and regional implementation. One important point to take into account is the non-European nature of social unemployment policy: It limits what we can actually do. We’ll see what happens with the European Social Pillar and the discussion in the next European elections on treaty changes, which are being discussed by French President Emmanuel Macron and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker.

Claire, you already mentioned the differences between the countries. Where would you say is the situation the worst, and is there a common problem or is it a specific situation?
Dhéret: I think there are variations across countries, but also across regions. In some countries, you see that some regions perform much better than others. You see that there are huge problems in Southern Europe, in particular in Greece, in some regions in Italy and Spain, also to some extent in Portugal. It is very important to go beyond these figures of youth unemployment and also look at the quality of employment and jobs, because you see that in some countries the level of youth unemployment has decreased, but there is still a question of whether the kinds of jobs which young people have are offering a sustainable transition toward more stable jobs.

Would you say it is a common European problem? Or is every region affected in a different way?
Dhéret: The problem is more acute in regions where the figures are higher, but overall, it is also more profound and deeper than we think. Lots of people have put the blame on the economic crisis, and it is clear that the economic crisis has aggravated the level of youth unemployment. But at the same time, there is a profound transformation of the labor market, at the economic and the societal level, so that people no longer work in the same types of jobs. We see across Europe that there are also new forms of employment. The share of young people involved in these new forms of employment is higher than for the rest of the population. This profound transformation raises a number of questions, not only about the labor market but also about the social fabric and the functioning of the welfare state in Europe.