Don’t let Europe’s youth become a new lost generation, youth organisations urge

Young male volunteer in mask gives an elderly woman boxes with food near her house. [Shutterstock/Alonafoto]

As Europe’s economy is shrinking due to the COVID-19 pandemic, youth unemployment has been on the rise. If policymakers do not use the current crisis to invest in young people and create a more just and sustainable society, Europe’s youth will become a new lost generation, Carina Autengruber told EURACTIV.

Carina Autengruber is the president of the European Youth Forum.

Young people have been particularly ‘blamed’ for the second wave, do you agree with this narrative?

There were reports in the past months pointing specifically the fingers towards us, the younger generation, for being the cause of the current spike in cases, not only in Europe but all over the world. We have also seen even some governments who specifically target social-distancing restrictions towards young people. In Scotland, for instance, young people were not allowed to enter pubs.

Targeting young people is perpetuating this totally unfounded narrative that young people are not taking the pandemic seriously, or are less likely to behave responsibly. There’s little or no evidence that young people are not adhering to the rules and regulations in comparison to other age groups.

Is there evidence that could help counter such a narrative?

Earlier this year, we were working on the report together with the ILO, where we surveyed young people in the age range between 18-34 in 112 countries across the globe and received 12,000 responses.

Four and five out of the respondents – 80% of the young people – reported they were staying at home to a large extent, and over one and four said they’re actively engaged in volunteering.

This also means that we are solely harnessing the negative part, while young people are actively contributing as well to turning this crisis into an opportunity as well for collective action and are actually supporting vulnerable communities.

The youth workforce is particularly vulnerable to the economic crisis caused by COVID-19, it is much harder to find work and safety nets do not seem to work. Do you see the ‘Class of 2020’ becoming Europe’s lost generation?

Since the 2008 crisis, youth unemployment rates are consistently higher, or more than double the overall unemployment rate in the EU. With the current crisis, we again see this additional layer, where young people will be one of the groups being hit hardest.

This is also because we are overrepresented in several of the hardest-hit sectors of the economy, one in three young people work in the wholesale, retail, accommodation, and food sectors. And of course, not being in employment also affects the entire life cycle for a young person, it puts us more at risk in terms of poverty, we also are expecting an increase when it comes to homelessness. Because if you don’t have enough financial resources, how do you pay rent? How do you pay for food? How do you pay for transport, or contribute to the social security system?

Our system is currently set up in such a way that if you don’t pay, you also don’t receive it. I am worried that if policymakers do not intervene this year, invest in young people and create sustainable jobs, our generation will again – and I am saying again – be a lost generation.

Is this the moment of truth for the European Youth Guarantee scheme? Is it the proper tool for dealing with the unemployment spike expected after the COVID-19 crisis?

It can be used as one tool, but it’s definitely not the only tool, because for this the youth guarantees are definitely underfunded to solve a crisis on the scale that we currently see. There are so many areas where our labour market currently is not functioning.

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With youth unemployment on the rise across the EU, and aggravated further by the fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic, EU lawmakers called upon the European Commission and member states last week to increase their support for young people in precarious working conditions.

We see for instance, that there is no or hardly any entry-level jobs for young people after finishing their formal education. We still see that there are unpaid internships, which make it harder for young people from diverse backgrounds to enter the labour market, or get the first experience.

The guarantee can be supportive, but cannot solve it all. Recently, the European Commission put out a new proposal and we’ve seen a number of positive improvements, which seen which do address some of the gaps we were highlighted as well in the past couple of years.

Can you give some specific examples?

Previously, only people under 25 could apply to be part of the Youth Guarantee Scheme. Now the age limit was lifted to 30, making a larger pool of young people able to access the scheme. There will be also a focus to specifically provide opportunities for young people to gain digital and green skills to get prepared for the poor changing labour market.

What is still missing, is it really needs to provide quality offers. It should not offer or reinforce patterns of precarious work, but must be a tool to support young people to pursue their personal ambitions, access quality education and training, and also in the future and have a decent job, which provides us with long-term security, fair pay and learning opportunities.

COVID-19 is speeding up the digital transformation, experts recommend investing in training new digital skills. What do you expect will be a challenge for the youth labour market?

One of the most difficult issues will be those who are already out of the labour market, who lost their jobs, and to provide them with training. The other challenge is that our systems are slow – until our education systems are adapting to these very rapid needs that have been shown in a couple of months right now, it will take still like ages.

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EU lawmakers called on the member states on Thursday (22 October) to increase efforts to close the digital gap in education across the bloc, which has been deepened by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Training is important but at the same time, we have to counter the narrative that young people already are digital natives that grew up with a phone in their hands – it’s not true for all. Not everyone has access to a computer and not everyone has access to their own phone, while internet connection in some parts of Europe simply does not exist in more rural areas. We need strong support and investment to make this digital transition happen.

That is also connected to how education is organised as such. What should be the lessons learned from the crisis? 

First of all, it’s important to notice that during this pandemic, a lot of students have interrupted their education or training, because schools and universities were closed, apprenticeships or internships were interrupted, postponed, or moved online. For some students, digital learning was a possibility, but again, we have seen big inequalities in our societies and how they take away opportunities from young people

It’s not only about formal education, but it also concerns the offers that youth organizations are bringing. A lot of volunteering opportunities had to be stopped or moved online and often those are the only spaces for young people from vulnerable backgrounds to meet with their peers, learn from each other and gain soft skills.

We were speaking a lot about solidarity in the EU recovery fund negotiations, do you feel there is enough solidarity with young people in the recovery plans so far? 

What we see right now is that the national recovery plans, they really will depend on the priorities of each individual member state. We know that the green transition has somehow a separate target in there, which can be a huge opportunity to use this crisis to have a positive impact on the response to the climate crisis. If it’s done in a good way, this would support our future generations to live on a sustainable planet. We need to see how it actually is implemented because one thing is a written plan and the other question is on how it’s being executed.

What is very important in all of this is that young people have a say in shaping this transformation as well. We’re the group who the longest will experience this crisis, and also the society we will see in the future.

We also have ideas of how we’re envisioning this transformation. Quite often, we’re portrayed as problem-makers or as a bad example when suddenly youth unemployment is high. But we also have positive contributions, we also have ideas and can offer solutions as we know what is working for us.

What would you specifically expect from EU policymakers?

We need to ensure investing in recovery, which does not mean going back to where we were at the beginning of the year. Instead, we need a holistic approach, which is reforming our entire system. Already beforehand, we have seen massive amounts of youth unemployment, we have seen how we are polluting our planet, so there’s a lot of indicators that our system is simply not working.

We need to transform and use this crisis and make a transition to a more just and sustainable society. When it comes specifically to employment, we need to ensure that the EU is investing in sustainable jobs, for instance, in companies that are using sustainable practices, that use technology for the good to support this transformation. This will also make us more resilient in the long term for possible future challenges.

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The European Youth Forum works to empower young people to participate actively in society and improve their lives by representing their interests towards the European Institutions, the Council of Europe, the United Nations, and other partners active in the youth field. The European Youth Forum is the platform organisation advocating for youth rights in Europe. It is made up of over 100 National Youth Councils and international youth NGOs from across Europe.

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