Opportunity knocks for Europe’s youngsters – as long as they live in the right place

Differing fortunes await the continent’s youth, but governments’ responses have often been the same – vocational training programmes

 President Hollande described France’s unemployment rate as an ‘economic and social emergency’. Photograph: SIPA/REX/Shutterstock
President Hollande described France’s unemployment rate as an ‘economic and social emergency’. Photograph: SIPA/REX/Shutterstock

Across Europe, with growing numbers of baby boomers clinging to their office chairs, it has become harder for unskilled and semi-skilled young people to find work. Even graduates struggle to find work commensurate with their expertise.

“Europe needs an immediate answer on growth, youth and security issues,” said Sandro Gozi, Italian secretary of state for European affairs at a meeting of European leaders in Italy last month.

Most European leaders have wrung their hands and expressed their sympathy for the young as first the financial crash and then a succession of crises sent unemployment rates for 15- to 24-year-olds soaring.

Earlier this year, François Hollande described France’s unemployment rate as an “economic and social emergency”. Announcing a €2bn (£1.7bn) jobs package, the French president said he was particularly upset at a youth unemployment rate that had topped 24%.

His answer was deeply traditional – before the end of the year he intended to put 500,000 unemployed into vocational training programmes, in addition to the 150,000 announced last October.

To tackle youth unemployment more specifically, 150,000 would be enrolled in civic service volunteer programmes, almost three times as many as the 60,000 youngsters enrolled in 2015.

State-run training programmes are nothing new in France and are often used to fill a jobs void. The suspicion must be that when the July youth unemployment figures for the eurozone showed a drop of 136,000, and France’s unemployment rate fell below 10% for the first time in his presidency, the falls could be largely attributed to Hollande’s civic service scheme, rather than a resurgent private sector.

Italian prime minister Matteo Renzi overturned rules that restricted firms from hiring and firing, making the jobs market even more flexible and insecure. Photograph: Imago / Barcroft Images
Italian prime minister Matteo Renzi overturned rules that restricted firms from hiring and firing, making the jobs market even more flexible and insecure. Photograph: Imago / Barcroft Images

Germany’s, and France’s, answer has been to devise work schemes and skills centres that aim to make the young ready for work at least by the time they are 30. And the use of internships, short-term and flexible contracts is equally rife. Like companies in the UK, German firms look around for ways to cut costs to afford the hugely expensive benefits negotiated by older, often unionised, workers. Invariably, they turn to the young for savings.

The scale of this attack on the terms and conditions of young workers in France and Germany pales compared to the brutal exploitation of under-25s in Spain, Italy, Portugal and Greece. These countries have always assumed young people will live at home while they are educated and trained for the workplace. Eight years after the financial crisis, this situation can only be described as extreme.

In Italy, around 80% of under-30s live in their parental home and the average age for achieving “economic independence” is estimated at 35. Thousands still leave for Germany and Britain and those who stay must work with few benefits and little job security.

Italian prime minister Matteo Renzi spent his first months in office overturning rules that restricted firms from hiring and firing, making the jobs market even more flexible and insecure. This policy, tax cuts and the end of a long recession last year has brought Italy’s youth unemployment rate down from 43% in 2014 to 39.2% in July 2016.

It is also worth noting that, as with the other Mediterranean countries, the official figures fail to reveal a huge hidden economy that offers work cash-in-hand to young people. These tax-free payments keep their heads financially above water from week to week, but don’t allow them to purchase a home, start a family or save for a pension.

Renzi wants Brussels to sanction a huge investment drive across Europe, in the wake of Britain’s Brexit vote, to encourage private companies to train young workers. It’s easy to see why, when the Italian economy is weighed down by troubled banks and the finance ministry is out of funds. But getting agreement from the rest of Europe, and Germany in particular, will be difficult. In the meantime, the continent’s youth will experience differing fortunes.

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