Old and young must stand together to fight unemployment


Picture of Johanna Nyman
Johanna Nyman

Johanna Nyman is President of the European Youth Forum

In a major speech this month, the Pope highlighted youth unemployment as one of the biggest crises afflicting Europe, along with migration. Meanwhile, I was interested to read an opinion piece from a prominent commentator on European affairs, Giles Merritt, Secretary-General of Friends of Europe, who seemed to dismiss youth unemployment as exaggerated and not such a big deal.

In this piece, Mr Merritt pits young against old by arguing it’s not youth unemployment that should be our major concern but the joblessness of older people. This rhetoric is unhelpful. I wouldn’t argue that the older generation has it easy, but youth unemployment is a huge problem we need to tackle through intergenerational solidarity. Younger and older people are both victims of structural ageism. Systematic stereotyping and ageist attitudes, laws, policies and practices are embedded in the system – hindering both young and old in their search for work and access to their rights.

By tackling youth unemployment head-on, we will also solve significant problems we’re storing up for Europe’s ageing population, given that young people currently out of work aren’t paying into the system that provides our state pensions. If we don’t take action now, the long-term impact of current jobless young people will shake the very foundations of our welfare state, which should look after young and old alike.

Systematic stereotyping and ageist attitudes, laws, policies and practices are hindering both young and old in their search for work

Where I think we can agree with Mr Merritt is that the youth unemployment rate actually masks a whole range of problems, and doesn’t properly illustrate the situation of young people in Europe today. The youth unemployment rate tells us nothing, for example, about underemployment – young people working involuntarily in part-time or poor-quality jobs – or young people who’ve given up on their job search altogether. Nor does it tell us about precarious, underpaid jobs with little or no protection, or unpaid internships with poor learning content. To get a better picture of young people’s situation, it’s more helpful to look at the number of NEETs (young people not in education, employment or training), which reached around 15 million among those aged 15-29 in 2012.

Mr Merritt takes issue with the statistics, which he sees as misleading and over-exaggerating of the unemployment problem faced by Europe’s youth. I’m afraid I also have to disagree on this point. But instead of quibbling over ratios and the proportion of the population that’s unemployed, it’s perhaps more helpful to remember this figure, which doesn’t mislead: according to the latest Eurostat data from March 2016, 4.287 million people under 25 are unemployed in the EU. This not only has a hugely-detrimental impact on those young people’s lives right now, leading to poverty, social exclusion and other societal impacts such as young people having to move back in with their parents and delaying significant moments of adulthood such as starting a family.

Youth unemployment rates, though, don’t tell us about the long-term costs of unemployment for young people, nor for society as a whole through a loss of social protection contributions. Eurofound has highlighted, for instance, that youth unemployment imposes a negative impact of 12-15% on individual wages by the age of 42.

Unemployment rates don’t tell us the long-term costs of unemployment for young people nor for society through a loss of social protection contributions

So, how can we tackle this? I truly believe that, at both ends of the age spectrum, it’s necessary that all society reflects on the sustainability of Europe’s economic and social model. These huge challenges need to be addressed through solidarity between generations to avoid them being seen as in conflict. It’s high time to envisage a new Social Pact, one which pays greater attention to all generations, to everyone’s needs and expectations and which will ensure the real involvement of all in society. It’s necessary, for example, to develop a fair intergenerational pension system that ensures both the wellbeing of older people through adequate pensions, without overburdening the young through high contributions.

Whichever way one looks at the figures, what cannot be denied is that youth unemployment blocks young people from living full and autonomous lives, from contributing to society and will have a long-lasting detrimental impact on our societies and on our futures, young and old.

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