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European Youth and the Financial Crisis (originally written by Kaz Poultney, 5 March 2009)


Originally written by Kaz Poultney, 5 March 2009.

European Ministers for Education, Youth, Culture and Communication met last week in order to discuss the impact of the current economic crisis on young people in Europe. During this meeting, ministers adopted key messages for the European Council in March, among them pushing for greater investment in human capital, through improved European cooperation in the field of education and training.

These proposals are just one part of the growing number of European policy responses to the social impacts of the economic downturn. Frustration amongst youth in Europe first hit the headlines in October 2008, as violent protests hit Greece. The €700 group, named in reference to the amount that 56 percent of Greeks under the age of 30 earn per month, rioted for seven nights, causing more than €100 million worth of damage. Although sparked by the police shooting of a teenager, the protesters were soon supported by the two largest Greek trade unions, as underlying resentment of the economic policies of the government came to the fore. In the same period, similar protests hit Spain, Italy, Denmark and Sweden, as European youth united with their elders in a show of frustration.

With European leaders beginning to worry, the winter of discontent rolled on to France. President Sarkozy was soon forced to drop contentious proposals to reorganise the high school curriculum, citing fears of another “May 1968.” As you may remember, this is the same Nicolas Sarkozy, who as Minister of Interior in 2005, notoriously referred to young rioters as “racailles” (scum) and adopted a zero-tolerance policy in the face of civil unrest. Three years later, Sarkozy had backed down in the face of a disgruntled youth.

By January, anti-government protests had also spread to the new Member States, including Bulgaria, Lithuania and Latvia. The atmosphere seemed even more heated. In Bulgaria they called on the government to step down, in Latvia and Lithuania they protested against specific economic policies of their governments, causing the Lativan Prime Minister to infact resign. Some protesters described an “us and them” polemic in the country, similar to that seen at the end of the Soviet era.

Talk of a pan-European movement may be a little ambitious, as each protest has been shaped, by and large, within a specific political and social context. However what links these protests is that they have gone on to attract support from the wide spectrum of society that the financial crisis has affected. However, as most EU governments expect unemployment to continue rising for the foreseeable future, there is real danger that that these incidents will become more common place across the EU.

So what should policy makers do? No one really seems to know. In terms of youth unemployment, one thing EU governments will have to recognise is that it will not just be early school leavers or unskilled workers who will be badly hit. The future of university graduates is also far from secure. In the UK, most graduate traineeships have been taken down, and there are 47% fewer positions available in the city (previously a hub of graduate jobs). In Greece, the unemployment rate for young graduates is 22%, compared to 8% of the population as a whole. It's clear that upon graduating this summer, young adults who believed that with the right qualifications they would reap the financial rewards are about to be let down. For them, the economic prosperity that their parents enjoyed is in danger of trickling out, instead of down.

As it stands, a generation of Europeans that is more connected and more educated than ever, feels left out in the cold. What many EU leaders fear is that their reaction to this will be to try to turn the heat up on their governments.

Here are the some proposals - what do you think?
- Expand education and training opportunities for young people
- Work to inform young people about the non-conventional work opportunities available
- Work with the private sector to increase the number of entry level positions
- Decrease the cost of higher education to encourage young people to stay in university for longer

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