The Wide Gap between Generations: Alienation vs Understanding


Europe’s ageing population is a great problem for the continent, and its political landscape. Policy-makers in Brussels or other European capitals still belong (to a large extent) to the same kind of group that has ruled Europe for centuries: older, privileged, white men. Although this trend is slowly changing (with the increasing impetus for young people to become more politically active), with respect to actual policy-making and policy debates in Europe, one gets the impression that the “old elite” often forgets about future generations and caters more for its own interests.

This ruling elite has become progressively more alienated from the younger generation, not deliberately, but structurally. The older elite has completely different experiences of Europe as well as expectations completely divorced from the lives of young people nowadays. This means they have a limited picture of the challenges and troubles the youth in Europe face. By advancing an agenda of austerity, for example, this older elite accepts that mass youth unemployment as an unfortunate consequence; it does nothing, however, to deal with the anxieties and perhaps even longer-term traumas that these policies will engender.

As I have suggested, this growing alienation is the product of a structural bias towards people of a certain social group and profile. However, the alienation would not necessarily be problematic if the structural bias itself was open and responsive to change. But it is not. It is incredibly difficult for young people to “break into” this closed circle of privileged men, and therefore, the alienation grows and opportunities to directly influence policy remain limited.

This implies a significant paradox: in order to change policy and make it more “youth-friendly”, young people should get more involved in European politics, but opportunities with conventional routes of employment are incredibly limited

The limited opportunities to get policy-influencing jobs is directly in conflict with the EU’s official call to get young people more politically engaged and motivated. This implies a significant paradox: in order to change policy and make it more “youth-friendly”, young people should get more involved in European politics, but opportunities with conventional routes of employment are incredibly limited; the job market has become so competitive that only a few get this chance, while the long established habits of European politics give this “old elite” more of a say than younger people.

What’s more, the youth are told to engage in other forms of political engagement (protest, pressure group, debates etc.) which are valuable and necessary, but not sufficient to influence policy. While some commentators may regard young peoples’ acquiescence with a political system that alienates it as futile, I am simply in favour of some modest reforms which would make the current system of job and career acquisition fairer and more reflective of society’s diversity.

Allow me to elaborate. The lack of awareness about the difficult realities young people face, especially in finding a job, and the dominant discourse that protects the interests of the older generations are well reflected in the structures and processes of European policy-making. When it comes to the question of how to manage Europe, young people should make their voice heard and too often, it is argued that it is their own fault if they fail to do so. There are two sides to this coin: yes, younger generations should show more interest in politics and become active citizens, but when they do, many feel patronised. Often, their opinion is not valued enough. Maybe older generations think young people know too little of the world yet or that they need to achieve the same standing or position before their voice counts, but either way it is very frustrating for young people. Now, I do not want to talk about how policies should be changed in favour of younger generations, nor do I wish to add to the extensive body of literature on the miserable unemployment rates among the youth in Europe. I want to look at what is wrong with the extreme competitiveness of the job market, especially in the field of European policy-making.

The separation between older and younger people in European politics stems from the changes in the system and pathways to employment. While working for the EU has been perceived as less prestigious in the past, it has gained immense interest in the last few years. This has attracted a wider variety of people, meaning that the job market in this field suffers from a greater demand for jobs than it can supply. Thus, standards for applicants have become much higher and the process much more competitive, with the workforce becoming more diverse. In itself, this greater diversity is a good thing as it reflects the increasing diversity of the continent, and higher standards of a better educated class of young people. The problem with the rise in competitiveness is that the top levels of the institutions have not changed with similar speed. Indeed, the bottlenecks created by the glut of talented youth at the bottom and the lack of access to more senior roles is not trivial; if youth cannot influence policy-making, then they will not have their voices heard in a mainstream political process.

In today’s world of European policy-making, for example, a graduate with several degrees speaking 5 languages fluently will most likely only get unpaid internships when leaving university, and not a real job.

In addition, the system is inherently unfair. Basically, a race for more and better skills and qualifications implies not only more competition amongst young people nowadays but also much higher standards than some decades ago, leading to a more skilled and qualified workforce than ever before. In today’s world of European policy-making, for example, a graduate with several degrees speaking 5 languages fluently will most likely only get unpaid internships when leaving university, and not a real job. In contrast, many senior policy-makers possessed and needed fewer skills and qualifications when they entered the job market and obtained their first positions. They often still have fewer academic credentials, know fewer languages or struggle with certain computer programs, for example. That does not mean that young people starting a new job are smarter than the older generation but they do have a more developed set of skills than their predecessors did at the same entry level point in their careers.

That is also not to say it’s a bad thing that you can work your way up the ladder, because professional advancement should be based on merit, but it has become much more difficult nowadays, since employers have expectations on young people that they could not fulfil themselves at the time (and sometimes still cannot). This circumstance creates a very unfair situation for the European youth of today and causes a lot of frustration, while reinforcing the feeling of not being able to identify oneself with the other generation, as their roads through life have been completely different and recognisably easier, especially the baby-boomers.

What’s more, the difficulty of identifying with those in power becomes apparent as when we consider the visibility of this European elite. While positions in the past were mainly occupied by the “older, privileged, white males” I already alluded to, the social fabric of European politics has changed fundamentally, allowing for more diverse people from different backgrounds to enter jobs in this field. Nonetheless, they have barely breached the still fairly closed circle of the “old elite”. If one attends political events in any European capital – conferences or expert discussions for example – how many women or ethnically diverse people do you see on the panels – how many in the audience? Thus, alienation from the “old elite” also stems from a sense of not belonging to their group. For, if they cannot identify with you, will they really be ready to hear what you have to say?

This goes to show that there is something fundamentally wrong with the current job market, especially in the field of European policy-making: on the one hand, young people have to be better qualified and skilled than ever before, while at the same time adding to an increasing diversification of the social make-up of this field; on the other hand, they are still at a disadvantage because these differences alienate them from the older generation who are therefore less likely to listen to them or advocate their interests.

So we need to counteract this trend of alienation, so that both generations can identify with one another and work towards the same goals. But how can this bond be restored? It all boils down to mutual understanding. Older generations must constantly remind themselves of the fact that nurturing the youth and giving them a voice is also in their interest. They must try to understand young peoples’ backgrounds and acknowledge the benefit of innovative input by younger generations that are highly qualified and skilled. Similarly though, young people must accept the fact that the European job market has changed over the last decades and that current conditions make it harder for them to find jobs in this field than for older generations, despite their efforts and experiences, because the demand-supply imbalance on the job market will hardly change in the near future. Nonetheless, they must not give up to strive for inclusion in European politics and getting their voice heard.

​Thus, we must stop saying young people should get more involved in European politics and shape policy-making, but actually give them the chance to do so. Otherwise, this generation will indeed become a lost generation, caught up in this paradox. In the end, we should not forget that the youth of today is Europe’s future.