The Curious Case of European Youth Unemployment – An Inconvenient Truth

, by Berenice Darnault

The Curious Case of European Youth Unemployment – An Inconvenient Truth

Mind the gap, between the Uni and your first job. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Is the EU labour market for young graduates really turning into a gridlock? “Youth guarantee must be top priority”. So did promise, in theory, the European Commissioner responsible for Employment, László Andor, in his speech earlier this year. In reality however, it is not quite clear where the present EU strategy for youth employment really lies.


Statistics from World Economic Forum (WEF) show that 1.5 million employed youth were underemployed in the EU27. According to official data from the Commission, 23.5% of under 25 years of age are jobless across the EU. In other words, about 7.5 million young Europeans are neither in employment nor in education or training. And yet, hold tight, young Europeans are far better off than some of their counterparts outside of the EU. The WEF also reveals that in countries like Turkey, unemployment rate among university-educated women is more than 3 times higher than that of university-educated men. In Saudi Arabia, it is 8 times higher. Distressing, isn’t it?

A sclerotic global economy and skyrocketing default rates have both deterred companies from confiding in young entrepreneurship. At the other end of the recruitment spectrum, young graduates are reluctant to venture into unknown labour market territories, and instead opt for so-called ‘royal educational paths’. Placing individuals into categories is poppycock! Business, finance, science and engineering, however popular and glamorous these subjects have become over the last decade, do not look so glamorous for all new graduates from University. Now, imagine you are one of those recent graduates with an Arts degree in hand, looking for a decent pay. Add to this you’ve studied abroad but have no full recognition of your degree in your home country. And, coup de grâce final, you are formally recognized as suffering from a physical impairment. At this very point, you should be –and quite understandably, at a total loss.

Unlike the early 1980s recession, it is predicted that interest rates will remain low for a longer time across the EU. According to the international bank specialist Investec, European sovereign debts are not shrinking despite the austerity pain. Now, take the UK and its £1.3 trillion of national debt. It is very unlikely that British unemployment will go lower than 7% before the 2015 national elections. Jobs are imported rather than created, and the workforce has become cheaper. Inadvertently, this has allowed more focus on quantity and disposable work, when what merits attention is the level of job security and ‘decency’. While a majority of young workers have no other choice but to accept two or three jobs in a row to earn a living, they are very often vulnerable to exploitation and abuse. Farewell to meritocracy, welcome to bureaucracy. In this global race to the bottom, what is the future for young workers?

Fifty shades of youth unemployment

As Eurostat reckons, definitions for unemployment tend to omit the ‘unclassified’ underemployed “part-time workers, the jobless persons seeking a job but not immediately available for work, and the jobless persons available to work but not seeking it”. While it is true that young job seekers remain at the mercy of a dysfunctional technocratic elite, it is also certain that the youth has stagnated in a self-complacent pessimism.

Youth on the move… but where to?

One last, yet persisting, political contradiction is to be noted. Part of Europe 2020 strategy is to promote ‘youth on the move’ and social inclusion. Let’s bring out from the shadows Regulation 1408/71 on the Freedom of movement for workers and equal social rights. Since 1971, worker’s mobility forms part of the Union’s basic principles. Yet, embroiled in the political debate of social mobility, national governments, such as UK’s leading Conservative party, have recently launched a proposal for reform on immigration control. To top it all off, the worrying rise of anti-immigration discourses and the resurgence of far-right political parties, such as France’s National Front or Greece’s Golden Dawn, have constrained the debates into protectionist fetters. Prospects for migrant and youth labour markets today are six of one, half a dozen of the other. Xenophobia and racism put the EU project of workers’ ‘mobility’ or ‘immigration’ –in whichever way politicians decide label it, under vehement pressure and unsafe waters. What is clear is that the situation plays into the hands of radical parties.


So what next? The onus is on both sides. Recruiters and newbie-to-be. First, let’s face the facts. European universities need to increase their competitive output. The Economist unearthed that in 2011, only 2 European universities – the traditional Oxbridge tandem, were ranked among the world’s top 10 universities. A complete overhaul of university criteria and education system is needed. Second, a tailored-made labour market must be created. Positive economists assert that economic recovery is under way. Fantastic news. Now such hope should give an adequate momentum for young cutting-edge entrepreneurs to kick off their start-ups. Likewise, the historically low interest rates environment is increasing investors’ risk appetite. This should be an opportunity for companies to invest more in youth working potential.

I remain quite sceptical about the latest craze on ‘voluntary work’ or the ‘work for free’ approach. Androulla Vassiliou, member of the European Commission responsible for Education and Youth, calls for ‘increased opportunities for volunteering, youth exchanges and other forms of participation for young people’. Surely Ms Vassiliou could better justify her Commissioner’s salary with more elaborate options for young hard workers?

The emergence of new projects, such as the Youth Mentoring and Apprenticeship Programme, is encouraging companies to invest in Mentoring and Apprenticeship (M&A). The Commission plans to grant professional cards to specific professionals in order to increase the mobility of EU workers across the Union, notably among nurses and engineers. National schemes are pushed forward too. In the UK, eight core cities agreed to sign the Youth contract, enabling local young employed people to enter into local businesses. However ambitious and honorable these projects may look, they remain at an embryonic stage.

Last but not least, budding job seekers will need to acknowledge that the digitalisation of all professions and the spread of social media have become the high-yield nerve centre of growth. They should orientate their job-hunting accordingly and target those winning industries. I, for one, should do some career backup plans, remain plugged in and browse.

Tip of the iceberg…

To this day, no European leader has convincingly articulated concrete measures in the risk of losing office. A crisis of democratic legitimacy and leadership vacuum are impeding any fast-track solutions. Most national governments across the EU are battling voters’ general disenchantment with the political class. Yet, “the beginning of every government starts with the education of our youth”. Surely Pythagoras could lecture some of our European political leaders today.

“Celebrating 25 years of EU support for Youth”

European Youth Portal

“Youth guarantee must be top priority”.

“Social security schemes and free movement of persons: Basic Regulation”

“Global Agenda Council on Youth Unemployment 2013”

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