The disengaged youth, a pending challenge in the EU

According to OCDE, almost one in ten jobs held by young people have been destroyed since the downturn started and youth employment rates have only been recovering slowly. [Shutterstock]

The financial crisis of the previous decade was particularly hard on young people. However, as the latest data shows, 15% of young Europeans are neither at work nor studying (NEETs), which means this remains a structural issue.

According to OCDE, almost one in ten jobs held by young people have been destroyed since the downturn started and youth employment rates have only been recovering slowly.

“While across all countries the unemployment rate of young people has been typically higher than that of adults, the recent economic and financial crisis hit young people extremely hard,” Massimiliano Mascherini, head of unit of social policies at European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions, told EURACTIV.

While the NEETs problem was exacerbated by the crisis, data shows it remains a structural problem. Looking at Eurostat figures, since the crisis started, the proportion of young people neither in employment nor in education or training slowly increased and peaked at 20% in 2013.

“The crisis had a strong asymmetrical impact and it made the structural problem of member states explode and youth unemployment soar,” Mascherini explained. The end of the economic turmoil helped to reduce the young inactive rate but the situation has stagnated.

In 2018, the rate of NEETs —young Europeans not in Education, Employment, or Training between 20 to 34 years old— in the EU was 16.5% on average, although the level is similar to the pre-crisis period, the turbulence in the global economy might not help.

“While this is good news indeed, unfortunately, the recovery has not reached member states,” Mascherini said.

Italy (28.9%), Greece (26.8%), Bulgaria (20.9%), Romania (20.6%) and Slovakia (20%) are the member states with the most worrying situation. While Sweden (8%), the Netherlands (8.4 %), Luxembourg (9.9%), Malta (10.1%) and Austria (10.6%) are the countries with a lower rate of young inactive people.

Comparing the situation in Italy and Sweden helps to understand the considerable differences. The proportion of young excluded people was 3.6 times as high among young Italians than among young Swedes in 2018.

The age and gender factor

The transition from education to work has become more prolonged than usual in the past few years and changes in the world of work have led to an increasingly unpredictable labour market.

The constant evolution of the skills required often affects this transition too, as some decide to go back to education to make sure they are fit for the job. But this could eventually lead to disengagement if unsuccessful.

Statistics show as well that women are more likely to become NEETs and the gender gap is quite significant. In 2018, up to 20.9% of young women in the EU were NEETs. Among young men, the rate is almost 9 points lower: 12.2%.

Another major divide is that while young men are more inclined to face unemployment, young women would just be inactive. And the older they get, the more likely young women are to be excluded from work and education frameworks.

The key factors are similar to those that explain women’s exclusion from the labour market or the pay and pension gap, from family responsibilities to gender-based discrimination and career segregation.

Education remains a key differentiator.  Young people with a low-level education are four times more in danger of becoming NEETs than those with high-level training.

The country rates for 20 to 34 years olds with a low level of education who are excluded from work and education systems in 2018  are alarming, from 62% in Slovakia to 48% in Ireland and 18% in Luxembourg. But in Greece, 26.6% young people with high-level education are NEETs compared to 3.5% in Malta.

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Socio-economic burden

People outside work or training frameworks face higher risks of poverty and social exclusion, particularly in the absence of adequate public support. “Persistent disengagement makes the transition of young people to adulthood difficult and can have long-term scarring effects,” Mascherini explained.

“Being NEET is not just a problem for the individual; it is also a problem for society and the economy,” he added.

When it reached its historic peak in 2013, the cost in missing productivity and unpaid taxes in the EU alone was calculated around more than €153 billion.

Mascherini underlined the need to address the heterogeneity of NEETs to tackle the issue. “Under the label of NEET, young people with very different needs are aggregated,” he said and praised the Council recommendation for member states to tailor the implementation of the European Youth Guarantee to their national context.

“Youth should remain at the centre of the policy agenda. Investing in the youth is of utmost importance for the future of Europe and for the sustainability of the European project,” Mascherini argued.

He called on the European Commission to give young people tools to ensure “the possibility of a full transition to adulthood, such as housing and childcare support, allowing them to become full members of our societies.” This, he said, would help young rebuild their trust in the institutions too.

In the coming months, Commissioner for Jobs and Social Rights Nicolas Schmit is expected to unveil an updated Skills Agenda for Europe to tackle the existing skills gap and to reinforce the Youth Guarantee. Both could help tackle this ongoing challenge for the EU.

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[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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