This article is part of our special report Improving young people’s job prospects in the wake of COVID-19.
Already precarious in many regions of Europe, youth unemployment has spiked dramatically with the onset of COVID-19, sparking fears of another lost generation. At a recent StartNet Conference in cooperation with the European Policy Centre and the Connecting Europe project, policymakers, practitioners, and other stakeholders called for greater cooperation on facilitating young people’s transition to work.
The International Monetary Fund has declared the coronavirus “a crisis like no other.” Seemingly overnight, lockdowns brought Europe’s economies to a standstill, and suddenly, many people’s sources of income became precarious.
Throughout the bloc, short-time work schemes and social safety nets prevented catastrophic levels of unemployment seen in previous crises.
However, this has not meant that all groups are impacted equally. “Young people are much more affected by economic downturns than other age groups,” said the new StartNet Manual, a publication from a joint project of the Goethe-Institut and the Stiftung Mercator.
According to Eurostat, since March, the EU’s overall seasonally adjusted unemployment rate increased by 0.9 percentage points to 7.4% by August, but for those under 25, that number rose by 2.7 percentage points in the same period, reaching 17.6%
These developments have many fearing for the long-term employment prospects of an entire generation. Johannes Ebert, secretary-general of the Goethe-Institut, warned participants of the StartNet Conference that “Europe cannot afford a lost generation.”
Learning the lessons of 2008
In particular, the comparisons to 2008 are front of mind for experts and policymakers. Many are concerned that this latest cohort of young people will be a “second lost generation,” experiencing the same pitfalls as their predecessors in 2008.
For 2009, Eurostat puts unemployment for those under 25 at an average of 20.6% for the year across the EU (in comparison to 9.2% for the total working-age population). In parts of Europe, this got as high as 50% during the crisis and the years following.
In his keynote address at the StartNet conference, Commissioner for Jobs and Social Rights Nicolas Schmit reflected on his time as Luxembourg’s labour minister during the 2008 crisis. “There was a feeling of ‘they rescued the banks, but no one rescued the young,’” he said.
However, Schmit is more optimistic for today’s young people, “It is too early to talk about a lost generation, and we have to do everything possible to prevent that.”
His optimism stems from moves at the European level.
In particular, he highlighted the Youth Employment Support package (YES), unveiled in July and on track to be adopted by the end of the year. The Commission is hoping that at least €22 billion will be invested into these youth employment measures, a figure that matches the entire spending in the 2014-2020 EU budget.
One hallmark of the legislation is the reinforced Youth Guarantee. Building off the member states’ promise that all young people will have some form of employment, traineeship or opportunity for further education, the changes expand the programme’s age eligibility from 25 to 29 years-old and also aim to reach more vulnerable or disadvantaged groups of young people.
The Youth Guarantee now also includes a specific digital skills component. All participants will have their skills assessed and be provided with opportunities to hone them. This is crucial in the quickly changing modern world, Schmit noted.
‘No single solutions’
Core to both the Commission’s reforms and the youth employment initiatives is reaching out to as broad a population as possible.
“Inclusion is key,” Schmit said. “Europe has to be excellent. We have to push for excellence, but we also have to be inclusive. We have to take as many people as possible along.”
However, this is not a simple task. Unemployment rates are higher for more vulnerable populations, such as immigrants or the Roma. Additionally, reaching these groups with government programmes and interventions remains difficult.
Yet, many practitioners have had success in this area.
Gianpietro Losapio, director of the Consorzio NOVA, has a mantra when crafting projects to address issues around youth employment: “No single solutions.”
In the consortium’s work in 14 schools in the Italian regions Puglia and Basilicata, projects continuously consult with both businesses and young people to develop diverse and multifaceted opportunities.
These lessons are not confined to Italy or the consortium. Through its participation in the StartNet network, which includes 18 partners in 10 European countries, practitioners share their experiences, advice, and best practices.
Even though every partner has their own unique challenges, many aspects of their work are similar, according to Alice Barbieri, the project manager of Progettiamoci il futuro in Italy. “We have very similar problems at the moment. We have different contexts…but we faced the same issues during the lockdown and now.”
[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]