Young people in Europe’s post-COVID transition – enabling them to be the solution, not the problem

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[Goethe-Institut Brüssel]

Most people have never experienced anything like the current Covid-19 pandemic, its effect on societies and economies. Young people have been particularly hard-hit. Supporting them with quality education and sustainable jobs is essential, not only for this generation, but for the future of Europe.

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By Jan Wilker and Gesa Spätling on behalf of the StartNet Project at the Goethe-Institut Brüssel.

Already before the COVID-crisis, youth unemployment was structurally high, as many young people struggle with their transition from education into the labour market, dropping out, not being in education, employment or training (NEET). While the average youth unemployment in the EU is at 17.8 % (Eurostat 12/2020), there are major disparities between Member States, regions and disadvantaged groups (6.1% in Germany; 40.7% in Spain; 63% of Roma youth in Spain).

The ongoing pandemic is worsening the situation significantly. According to the UN report YOUTH & COVID, during the first half of 2020, ¾ of students faced schools closures, 1/6 lost their job, 2/5 suffered from income reduction. As a result, they are twice as likely to be affected by anxiety or depression. These numbers keep rising as the crisis continues. According to Eurofound, the pandemic is increasing inequalities, during home schooling and on the labour market. Leaving children behind now, is likely to have a lasting impact on their lives.

Young people who cannot enter the labour market lose their skills and their faith, first in themselves and then in the system. Europe needs the contribution of the most pro-European age-group, politically, socially and economically, while the public and environmental debt are accumulating

This is not only a matter for a single generation, but for everyone. If the continent aims for a green, digital and inclusive transition, the contribution of young people is fundamental. Their education, training and skills development is not only about building their future, but about revitalising disconnected regions, about innovating the economy, consolidating democracy and securing a sustainable future.

Are we doing enough to empower youth and next generations to secure Europe’s transition?

The EU has recently presented various instruments aiming to improve the situation. The multiannual budget for 2021-2027 foresees a significant increase of the Erasmus+ budget from 15 to €26 billion. The European Social Fund+ invests €88 billion of which 12.5% are earmarked for youth employment in most affected countries. Moreover, the €750 billion recovery instrument #NextGenerationEU provides major funding with a focus on sustainable and digital investments. The EU Youth Guarantee has been improved and renewed, such as the new Skills Agenda and VET Recommendation. More attention is attributed to disadvantaged groups, as well as long-term unemployed, who have not be reached so far.

For these measures to have a maximum impact, EU Member States need to be ambitious in their implementation, reinforcing them with national programmes. Political and financial commitment are key to enhance innovation in education and training, making it more accessible to everyone. Here lies a risk that investments benefitting young people may fall short, considering that they do not have the same political leverage and results will only be harvested after years.

National recovery and investment plans as well as political reforms need to prioritise life-long learning and young people’s transition to work. In its paper on NEET in Italy Alessandro Rosina, presents various active labour market policies and recommendations that policy makers should implement. One of them is “central coordination and local implementation”.

Such a process cannot happen only top-down. Local and regional stakeholders need to be involved across sectors. Schools, teachers, parents, social organisations, businesses, chambers of commerce, regional and local authorities as well as young people themselves have their word to say, have their role to play.

Bottom-up collaboration for sustainable impact

This has been done by StartNet, a project of Goethe-Institut and Stiftung Mercator. Over the last three years, it has connected stakeholders for youth transitions, who have engaged and collaborated from the regional to the European level. Using the Collective Impact approach, they have joined forces to co-create and implement programmes for young people in the Apulia region in Southern Italy. Moreover, European networks and partnerships have been built to exchange good practices and create joint projects supporting young people’s transition.

Peer-to-peer learning across borders permits to learn together and from each other. More European knowledge transfer on how to build local eco-systems and action chains that leave no one behind are needed. In particular with regard to the demographic situation in Europe, young people should be offered opportunities in all its regions, preventing brain drain and forced mobility.

StartNet has released a manual for practitioners and policy-makers on “How to build a regional Collective Impact network and European dialogue for young people’s #TransitionToWork”. It illustrates how multi-stakeholder networks are a powerful enabler to bridge the gap between education and the labour market.

The document is meant to inspire stakeholders from across Europe to use this unique challenge of the post-COVID recovery as a chance to innovate and enhance the educational eco-systems in their regions.

Education is not exclusively a matter of schools and universities, it needs to involve civic, social and economic stakeholders to empower young people for the labour market and the society of the future. The StartNet experience shows that engaging all these actors leads to a holistic people-centred approach.

Foundations for an inclusive recovery process have been laid at the European level, but national commitment, bottom-up mobilisation and more cooperation are needed – starting with the engagement of the most important stakeholder: young people themselves.

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