Employment and labour markets

Europe’s long-term issue: Youth unemployment

Europe has weathered a number of storms in recent years, yet despite the Great Recession, the migration crisis and the challenges posed by Brexit, the EU continues on a stable path to economic recovery, closer cooperation and cohesion. However, the legacy of the crisis lives on in the number of young people who are long-term unemployed. This is an unsolved issue that was brought to the table at the informal meeting of the EPSCO ministers in Sofia on 18 April.

Last September, when European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker delivered his State of the Union address, he had a positive message to tell: 8 million jobs created during this Commission’s mandate, 235 million people at work, more people in employment in the EU than ever before, and growth across the bloc outstripping that of the United States. The wind was back in Europe’s sails, went his now famous phrase.

Difficult to reach

Europe continues on this growth trajectory, but the impacts of the Great Recession are still being felt by certain groups in society, among them long-term unemployed youth. Young people were the social group most affected by unemployment during the crisis. The issue of youth unemployment was thrust into the public debate in 2012 when the number of jobless young people aged 15–24 spiked at 5.6 million across the EU. During this time, Eurofound released the findings of a study on young people not in employment, education or training (NEETs), highlighting the economic and social imperative of addressing the issue. Since then, due to a combination of economic recovery and policy initiatives, youth unemployment has declined to just over 3.5 million and looks set to drop further.

Even so, the issue of long-term unemployment among young people remains as intractable as ever. Eurofound’s report Long term unemployed youth: Characteristics and policy responses shows that in 2016, 5.5% of the active population of young people aged 15–24 years were long-term unemployed in Europe, compared to 3.9% of prime-age workers (25–49 years) and older workers (50–64 years). This translates to almost 1.3 million young people in the EU who were out of work and actively seeking employment for more than 12 months.

Figure: Well-being among 18–29-year-olds in different life circumstances

Source: European Quality of Life Survey, 2016

These young people are more difficult to reach and often lack education and work experience. They are also more likely to face additional challenges such as care responsibilities, poor health and, as the figure illustrates, lower levels of well-being than their peers. They are not the low-hanging fruit that will be plucked up by the economic recovery alone; they will need a holistic, individualised and young-people-centred approach if they are to be re-integrated into the world of work. Practically, this often means counselling, mentoring, referral to specialised help, tailor-made training and job placements, as well as flexible and sustained support. This can be costly, and is unlikely to reap short-term political dividends, but this is not an issue that can be put off indefinitely. 

Scarring effects

Eurofound’s presentation to the informal meeting of the Employment, Social Policy, Health and Consumer Affairs Council (EPSCO) in Sofia was a timely reminder of the cost of inaction. The data presented showed that people who are unemployed for 12 months or more have lower life satisfaction, lower trust in government and public institutions, reduced mental well-being, and a higher risk of social exclusion. For young people, this can have a scarring effect on their earning potential over the life course, with dire consequences for their self-worth.

We may already be seeing the political manifestation of young people’s dissatisfaction. Increasingly they are making their voices heard in national elections across Europe, something that is long overdue. But the direction of their protest varies: in the UK, young people felt that their interests were best served through progressive politics and movements, but in Italy, reactionary and populist movements commanded a substantial share of the youth vote. 

The political outcome of Europe’s post-crisis youth unemployment remains to be seen. But one thing is already clear: the long-term youth unemployment issue should not be left unchecked. Europe may have the wind in its sails, but its unemployed youth are still adrift at sea.

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