Monday, 5 December 2011

Europe’s lost generation: the young are the damned

This week, the dark thunder clouds lingering above Brussels cleared slightly as Angela Merkel, Germany’s Chancellor and de facto political spokesperson for the euro crisis, put forward credible proposals for the creation of a tighter euro-zone fiscal union. More positive news is expected to emerge from Brussels this coming week, as Elio Di Rupo, a first-generation immigrant of Italian parenthood, is appointed Belgian prime minister after more than 535 days of political stalemate.

Europeans must not rejoice too soon. Borrowing by euro-zone banks from the European Central Bank (ECB) jumped to €8.64 billion this week, the highest level since March, indicating deep strains in the financial markets. In addition, political frictions over the future direction of the euro zone forged a rift between Ms Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy, the French president, just at the time when political coherence and stability is needed the most. High levels of debt and anaemic growth continue to plague member states.

Europe’s young people have found themselves in the eye of the storm. It is true that unemployment, unaffordable or unavailable mortgages and, in certain cases, high levels of student debt, shackled Europe’s youth before the financial and euro-zone crises, but the plight of young people has become more pronounced over recent, financially tumultuous years.

Yet no-one wants to talk about it. An unspoken pact, a conspiracy even, seems to exist among politicians to remain silent on the ever-increasing intergenerational injustice between Europe’s young people and its middle-aged and retired citizens. As politicians, civil servants and journalists dissect strategies and policies to save the future of the euro and with it, the European Union, they seem to have forgotten the foundations of Europe’s future: its young people. Therefore, as significant as this week’s developments in Europe may be, I propose that we step back from the minutiae to observe the situation in panorama, and take stock of the troubles facing Europe’s young.

In October 2011, the unemployment rate for under-25s in EU-27 stood at 22 per cent compared to 9.8 per cent of the general EU population. In Spain, juvenile unemployment was at 48.9 per cent in August 2011. Such is the state of youth employment in Europe, that a young man or woman is ‘lucky’ if he or she gains a so-called junk job: temporary contracts with no legal obligation to provide certain benefits such as severance pay. Worse still, to stand a chance at finding permanent work, young people are expected to have completed multiple, usually unpaid, internships. This is not only a fundamentally elitist form of employment, affording essential experience only to those whose parents can afford to support them, but it also violates the very rules of capitalism upon which our society is based. The formula: work = capital, no longer applies to Europe’s penniless young, but they are nonetheless required to exist in a capitalist society where the cost of living is ever-increasing.

The troubles of Europe’s youth cannot be exclusively located in the recent financial and euro-zone crises, but rather they are the result of a systematic generational fleecing. Let me return to the example of junk-jobs in Spain, Portugal and Italy. In these countries a rigid dual-system has materialised. While middle-aged citizens have generous pensions and robust legislation protecting their jobs, Europe’s younger generation is confined to a vicious circle of temporary contracts that afford virtually no employment rights. The two-track job market is stunting economic growth, and leading highly trained young professionals to flee their native countries in search of work elsewhere.

Europe’s intergenerational unfairness extends well beyond job availability and security, to affordable housing and higher education fees. Certain European nations are pricing an entire generation out of owning their own property through their nefarious buy-to-let markets, which enable middle-aged property moguls to acquire multiple houses, while simultaneously confining the younger generation to the rental market. For other European young people, the rites of passage to adulthood are postponed as vast numbers live with their parents into their late 20s.

If the plight of the younger generation weren’t alarming enough, in Britain, the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition has increased university tuition fees up to £9,000 a year, a hike of 300 per cent on the previous figure. According to findings from the Push National Student Debt Survey, British students will, as of 2012, graduate with an average debt of £53,000 - double the figure for 2011. By contrast, their parents benefited from free university education, and grants to fund living costs.

The increase in tuition fees would be easier to digest if the government were treating the rest of society with the same severity. David Cameron, the British prime minister, has honoured his promise to keep pensioners' bus passes and winter fuel allowances, despite the recipients' status as the richest pensioners in history. We are all in this together, he proclaims, but some of us more than others.

That said, many baby boomers are anything but wealthy. They too worry about their children's future and help them when they can. I must confess that I would not have benefited from such a high level of education had it not been for the financial help of my parents. Like the rest of the public, the older generation do not approve of politicians who lie to voters, as was the case with Nick Clegg, the British deputy prime minister, who pledged to abolish all university fees prior to the election, only to increase them three-fold once in government.

Generational envy or blame will not achieve anything, what is needed is robust political policy to address this imbalance in opportunities and to give Europe’s young people their futures back.

By Sonia Jordan