Scientist: “A youth guarantee cannot create jobs”

Dr Howard Williamson

Dr Howard Williamson

Whether or not a youth guarantee will enhance employability is questionable, but it is very important to ensure that young people are given a sense of purpose in their lives, which can happen through a youth guarantee but, equally, it could be through volunteering and other opportunities, Dr Howard Williamson told EURACTIV Greece in an exclusive interview.

Dr Howard Williamson is Professor of European Youth Policy in the University of South Wales and coordinator of the Council of Europe international reviews of national youth policies. He spoke to EURACTIV Greece’s Sarantis Michalopoulos.

How can an enhanced EU youth policy contribute to the way out of the crisis? Do you believe that young Europeans have the position and role they should in the society?

I am not quite sure what an ‘enhanced’ EU youth policy might be, though clearly it could be ‘enhanced’ in many directions.  The big issues are (a) its influence on the youth policy operational activity of Member States, (b) its impact on the key consequences of the crisis on young people (from protracted youth unemployment to a range of health, especially mental health, issues), and (c) whether or not it reaches those young people who need it most (there is a tendency for it to only reach those who probably need it least!).

The position and role that young people ‘should have’ is always contentious.  I am sometimes tempted to give the ‘anti-participation speech’ simply because of the gushing and rather meaningless rhetoric often associated with calls for more youth participation.  The structured dialogue since 2010 does provide one useful platform for youth voices to be heard on some key issues, but I have always argued for multiple platforms for youth engagement, based on many rationales for promoting them (combating the democratic deficit, providing practice for active citizenship, making better policy and practice and so forth).  However, it has to be thought through better and any such processes also need to include the ‘other side’ of the youth field – those actors in employment, health and justice policy who can make things happen in different ways.  Rarely are they engaged in dialogue with young people, so youth voice often only preaches to the converted.  There was once a policy paper in the UK that suggested that there should be two young people on the board of every company operating in the EU: that may be a bridge too far, but the point is that ‘youth engagement’ stops rather dramatically once you move beyond the youth field.

What is your standpoint regarding youth guarantee scheme? Can it be properly implemented by all relevant EU countries and positively affect the long term youth employability?

A youth guarantee scheme was established in the UK in 1988!  It had a mixed effect, working quite well for young people who were unemployed but ‘closest’ to the labour market (on account of their qualifications, motivation or geographical location).  Those furthest away often did not take advantage of the guarantee, partly because they usually got what they perceived to be the worst offers (not really employment experience, a requirement to return to learning to strengthen qualifications – things those young people did NOT want).  This was indeed the emergence of what I called in 1993 the ‘status zer0’ phenomenon that subsequently (in 1996) came to be described in policy arenas as the problem or challenge of the ‘NEET’s. [A NEET or neet is a young person who is “Not in Education, Employment, or Training“, the acronym having first been used in the UK.]  In other words, the guarantee came to replace any entitlement to social security benefits (because young people could only get resources through taking up an offer within the guarantee) and some young people simply ‘disappeared’: there was no point in presenting yourself at the careers or employment services if there was no ‘benefit’ in doing so!

So much depends on the nature of the guarantee, in terms of both its content as a stepping stone to the labour market and its credibility with young people who are targeted by it.

There are certainly questions as to whether some member states can implement it.  Twenty years ago, various similar measures in Australia proclaimed they resulted in zero cost, if all factors were taken into account (beyond economic productivity, the social and personal costs of youth unemployment).  But headline costs are likely to be a deterrent in some countries.

Employability is a dreadfully meaningless term.  Many of today’s young unemployed in Europe are eminently employable.  Indeed, they took the message about needing to be equipped for the knowledge-based economy and are now over-qualified for the kinds of jobs that are available.  So whether or not a youth guarantee will enhance employability is questionable; a youth guarantee cannot create jobs.  However, from another perspective, there is strong evidence of the ‘scarring effects’, over lifetimes, of lengthy early unemployment, and so it is very important to ensure that young people are given a sense of purpose in their lives – this may be through a youth guarantee but, equally, it could be through volunteering and other opportunities.  This may improve personal competitiveness for available jobs and, for some, may increase motivation to consider entrepreneurship and self-employment.  But ultimately the youth unemployment problem in Europe is much more one of too little demand than one of inadequate supply.

Taking into account the UK’s uncertain future in the EU, what could be the most effective tool in order to bring English youth closer to the European project?

Many young people who benefit from European youth programmes are unaware that their great positive, often transformative experiences, are paid for by the EU.  Conversely, many (more) young people absorb stories that straight bananas, licences for motor-driven lawnmowers, and Romanian immigrants are all the fault of the EU.  Young people often do not understand the kinds of resources that it takes to bring people together at a European level and compare those costs immediately with a two-week package holiday in Benidorm!  {Benidorm is a coastal town and municipality located in the comarca of Marina Baixa, in the province of Alicante, Spain.] So winning the European argument with UK young people is very difficult, in the face of what might be called their ‘local knowledge’, peddled by family, friends and neighbours.  Two things might help: ensuring that European experiences are extended to a broader constituency of young people (the EU has done quite well but some young people seem to become regular EU programme participants while many more know nothing about it), and making sure that young people know much more about the positive ways in which the EU affects so many aspects of their lives (not just through youth programmes but through wider educational measures and structural funds).  There needs to be a much stronger narrative to counteract all the negative information that British young people internalise about the EU.

Since the outburst of the crisis in Greece, the number of NEETs keeps on dangerously increasing as well as the youth unemployment rate. A recent report of the Council of Europe showed that young Greeks face significant difficulties. How can young Greeks come closer to the decision-making procedures and claim their rights?

I hate the term ‘NEET’s and it has now become a catch-all for so many different kinds of young people across a broad age range who are not in employment, education or training.  My ‘status zer0’ research was very specifically about the 16 and 17 year olds whom the British government at the time (1993) denied could drop out of the system because although they were no longer entitled to income support (social security) they now had the promise of a youth training guarantee if they did not remain in education, and failed to move on to training or employment.

But whatever the term and whatever the conceptual issues that confuse it, there is no doubt that young Greeks ‘face significant difficulties’ as you put it.  Both the internal migration that is being encouraged (from urban to rural contexts) and the international migration that is being executed (by young people who see no future in Greece) are no real answer.  Nor do I have any useful answers. but I do feel that there are three lines of development that might assist a more positive trajectory into the future.

First, the Greek authorities in particular cannot articulate the need for more entrepreneurship amongst the young, when their own bureaucracy and regulation puts so many barriers in the way of such possibilities.  At a more local level, it is clear that local authorities and young people have discussed more fluid and flexible relationships between municipal sections that might produce more enterprise and jobs, but this seems to be in spite of, rather than because of, the behaviour of the central administration.  Secondly, given that military service is now possibly the most guaranteed transition to adulthood for many young men in Greece, attention should be given to how it can assist passage to the labour market through the acquisition and application of a range of skills.  The Ministry of Defence seems to reject the idea of having any role in this regard.  Similarly, and thirdly, the Ministry for the Diaspora should be considering how it can connect successful expatriate Greeks across a spectrum of business success with young people seeking to pursue employment in those lines of business.  Diasporic connections should not be just about celebrating Greek history and ancestry but also about strengthening the place of Greece today.

Young Greeks ‘come closer’ to decision-making procedures in many ways – both evolutionary and revolutionary!  I am not quite sure what you mean by claiming their ‘rights’.  But there are strong rationales for engaging with and involving young people on issues that affect their lives.  This is sometimes extended by public (and occasionally even private) authorities as a matter of ‘good practice’ but it also has to be struggled for and demanded by different groups of young people, using all the devices at their disposal, particularly – now – social media and websites.  Youth participation is an essay in itself but ‘positioning’ is critical: too close and polite is too comfortable but too distant and critical is ineffective – over time, youth activists and organisations have to demonstrate their ‘professionalism’ in working through the arguments and making their case, along side others who will invariably have a different case to make and who may often also have an equal right, for different reasons, to have a seat at the table.

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