Europe’s Lost Generation: Reflections on the EU Integration Forum
Authors: Katy Jones
09 October 2014
Last week I was invited to join a group of policymakers, researchers, and social entrepreneurs from each of the 28 member states at the 4th annual EU Integration Forum. Focusing on one of the most pressing issues facing the EU – the “scourge of youth unemployment” - the conference centred around two key questions – what measures are needed to tackle youth unemployment in the EU? And who should do what?
Youth unemployment is an EU-wide problem. Yet its severity and the response to it varies considerably across Europe. The problem ranges from the extreme – Greece and Spain, for example, have youth unemployment rates of 57% and 55% respectively - to relatively low levels e.g. Germany and Austria where youth unemployment stands at a respective 8% and 10%. At around 20%, the UK currently sits just below the EU average of 23%.
Whilst the scale of the challenge is relative, and will have varying economic implications, speaking to delegates from across the EU it was clear that ensuring that young people are able to access good, quality jobs is a major policy concern for all member states – even those with relatively low youth unemployment rates. In addition, despite differences, the forum highlighted a number of common issues faced by member states, and the steps taken (or not taken) to address the youth unemployment crisis.
Predictably, many discussions centred on the EU’s flagship Youth Guarantee. The Youth Guarantee is an initiative offering all young people under the age of 25 an apprenticeship, traineeship, or continued education within 4 months of them leaving formal education or becoming unemployed. Regrettably, the UK government hasn’t signed up to this, reasoning that most young people claiming JSA stop claiming within 6 months (a recent report from the House of Lords highlights the limitations of this rationale).
It’s too soon to tell the success or otherwise of the Youth Guarantee, and delegates from some countries raised concerns relating to the quality of opportunities it provides and also the shortfall in resources needed – whilst national spending is expected to be the main funding source for such a scheme, the €6bn allocated through the EU’s Youth Employment Initiative is relatively small scale compared to the €21bn estimated to be needed to successfully implement it – this shortfall is particularly problematic for those countries facing the biggest deficits. If the Youth Guarantee isn’t going to make it into UK policy, there will be much we can learn from the different approaches taken and results seen through it’s implementation elsewhere.
Second, as in the UK, improving apprenticeships and vocational training was also felt to be an important part of the response to tackling youth unemployment – driven by both concerns about the quality of current vocational options and high levels of unemployment and underemployment amongst graduates - Spain, for example, has one of the highest youth unemployment rates, despite having one of the highest proportions of graduates in the EU. Familiar sentiments that “we’re not Germany” appear to ring out across the EU as countries try to build their own version of a strong dual vocational education system to provide a respected and clear pathway into work for those young people turned off by academia.
Labour mobility (or a lack of it) was also a key concern. Encouraging greater labour mobility, it was felt by some, may provide a short-term measure to prevent the scarring effects associated with periods out of the labour market, especially for those young people living in areas where demand for labour is particularly low. However mobility across the EU, particularly amongst younger generations, is low. Initiatives such as EURES – the European Job Mobility Portal, the European Alliance for Apprenticeships, and ERASMUS+ can encourage and support mobility, although it was felt that more needed to be done to facilitate this. However many delegates reflected that within country mobility was also an issue. Importantly, the question was raised whether it is fair to expect young people to move to find work, particularly those with few skills and resources. Forced migration, it was broadly agreed, is in no one’s interest, rather movement to find work from those areas most affected by youth unemployment should be encouraged and better supported.
Unpaid and low quality internships were another concern. Increasingly seen as a pre-requisite for entry to many graduate-level jobs, it was strongly felt that these opportunities should be both worthwhile and accessible to all young people, rather than just those who can afford to work for free. We heard from Interns go pro, a social enterprise working to establish a recognised European Label for Quality Internships. They currently have 20 NGO partners in 8 countries, however face challenges coordinating and accessing resources across the EU.
Whilst EU policies designed to tackle youth unemployment can be important for maintaining focus and momentum, national differences in the severity and nature of the problem ultimately mean that the action taken to tackle youth unemployment should be determined at national (and increasingly local) levels. Nevertheless, there is a lot we can learn from the experiences of the other 27 member states, particularly as results from the Youth Guarantee begin to emerge.
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