Empowering Youth


5 Ways to Empower the Youth (and why we think it would help Europe)

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This article reflects our project on ‘Youth Empowerment’ as part of our work within JEF Europe. Thereby, we are currently promoting our vision on how to reform European youth policies in different fora such as the Structured Dialogue.

For further information please see: http://www.jef.eu/policies/resolutions/ and http://europa.eu/youth/ie/article/structured-dialogue_en


Currently, unprecedented levels of youth unemployment give strong reason for concern. Across Europe, 24% of young people are unemployed, with that figure rising to an alarming 50% in both Greece and Spain. These levels of unemployment appear to be only some of the consequences of a very deep financial crisis in Europe that is still in need of resolution.

On the broader societal level, consequences of this unemployment include increased poverty rates and welfare costs with a reduction in tax intake. What’s more, unemployment encourages brain drains with young people leaving their home countries to develop their talents in more economically amenable environments, with the home country left to deal with  increasing levels of apathy towards society, as well as greater discrimination against foreigners, particularly evidenced in the rise of extremist groups and increased youth delinquency rates.

For the youth, consequences include social exclusion and feelings of alienation, demotivation for further activity, risk behaviour such as substance abuse as well as an increase in physical and mental health problems. These concerns evidently call for a change in policies that tackle issues concerning the future of young people — on the national as well as on the European level. Therefore, we argue for five different initiatives to aid today’s disadvantaged youth: first of all, strengthening the mobility of young people across Europe; secondly, widening vocational training schemes; thirdly, promoting the development of youth entrepreneurship; fourthly, preventing long-term employment in the secondary labour market; and lastly, empowering young people through mentoring schemes. All in all, through our lens as active members of a youth organisation, we aim to steer the discussion of relevant policy-makers so to take youth policy issues much more seriously.

Statistically, this means that throughout Europe more than every fifth young person is without employment.

The financial crisis has hit the young generation exceptionally hard: whilst an average of 12% of the whole population across the 28 European Union member states had been unemployed in September 2014, the rate of young people less than 25 years old had been almost twice as high, peaking at 22% during the same month. Statistically, this means that throughout Europe more than every fifth young person is without employment. In some countries, even more then every other young person cannot find a job today, such as in Greece or in Spain where the youth unemployment rate amounts to 51% and 54% respectively. In addition to being unemployed, it is worrying to note that a large proportion of young persons are also neither in education nor in training. Currently, this is experienced by 16% of young people throughout the continent, with alarming peaks in Turkey (30%) Italy (20%), Spain and Greece (both 18%). Altogether, these figures reveal a young generation that is provided with fewer opportunities to develop themselves than any other generation since the beginning of post-war European integration.

Already today, these worrisome trends in youth unemployment rates entail severe consequences  for decades to come if left ignored. What’s more, the risks are unpredictable and are prone to exacerbation. Several studies have recently analysed and compiled these effects such as an in-depth Eurofound report[1]. On the macro-economic level, the myriad potential effects include an increase in poverty rates leading to  rising welfare spending and a concurrently reduced tax intake. Also, the mismatch of skills in the labour market will entail the wasted talent of young people and numerous brain drains, particularly in those countries most affected by high unemployment rates. Most severely, these developments eventually risk  triggering decreasing trust in institutions, a general apathy against society and foreigners, or rising youth delinquency and emerging extremist groups.

On the micro-economic level (that is, the personal level of young people) consequences include, first of all, social exclusion and well as feelings of alienation. Alienation may lead to demotivation for further activity as regards employment activity but also political participation. Eventually, these developments may also trigger imprudent behaviour including but not limited to substance abuse, entailing subsequent physical and mental health problems. If we link these severe consequences on the macro-economic as well as on the micro-economic level together with persistently decreasing electoral turnouts and an upsurge of right-wing populist parties across Europe, the dramatic possible long-term impact becomes strikingly clear.

Calls to tackle the issue of rising youth unemployment increasingly abound, as the devastating consequences for Europe’s economies and societies are being felt: beyond the pledge of numerous experts from academia and NGOs, European as well as national policy-makers have recently stepped into the debate and acknowledged the need for immediate action targeted at a desperate Generation Y. Yet, we are wary: will these recent initiatives aid young people to live up to more prosperous lives? In our minds, ensuing steps will have to be thought of in a much more progressive and sustainable way then has been envisaged up to now.

We do not want to live in a Europe for which we have to fight for the rights that the generation of our grandparents fought for 70 years ago. We need to think ahead and prevent future crises; we need to empower the youth. And to do so, our generation needs to create opportunities ourselves. This is a big challenge that we cannot only fight for ourselves: we need politicians and other decision-makers to take our side. We need Europe to think ahead to empower young people.

Therefore, more than 30,000 members of the pan-European youth NGO Young European Federalists (JEF)  which acts above any party lines have recently adopted a resolution that outlines several crucial policy proposals.

First of all, our goal is to strengthen the mobility of young people to study, volunteer and work across Europe. In an integrated European Single Market, particularly also within the Eurozone, adverse effects such as high youth unemployment rates resulting from the on-going financial crisis are not only triggered by the interconnectivity of this economic community but  will also have to be borne by it. Therefore, enabling mobility of labour will be an essential tool. Thus, we consider effective mutual recognition of qualifications such as university diplomas through quicker and unambiguous administrative procedures particularly crucial. Also, we support greater teaching of foreign languages as linguistic diversity is a characteristic of the European identity that, unfortunately, still constitutes an obstacle to cross-border mobility of those less well equipped with linguistic skills. In order to enhance foreign language tuition, we would like to encourage member-state wide comparison of foreign language proficiency that go beyond existing studies such as the European Commission’s ‘Teaching Languages at School in Europe’ report or its annual ‘Education and Training Monitor,’ which merely depict organisational differences in language teaching but do not measure students’ attainment. Here, a Union-wide comparison similar to PISA could specifically pressure member states with low performance to improve their teaching such as  Belgium, Hungary, Ireland or Austra, where currently less than ten per cent of students in lower secondary education learn two or more foreign languages as set out by the 2002 Barcelona European Council objective of mother tongue plus two. In addition, as a very concrete measure to enhance young people’s mobility, we would like to initiate the idea of creating a European Mobility Fund, which should primarily assist member states in reporting disproportionate pressure on their social security systems resulting from immigration of EU citizens into their country. Transfers from other funds could initially finance this fund in a similar way to the European Globalisation Fund.

Our second concerns regards the fact that young people have on average a higher risk of being employed in the secondary labour market, for instance as interns or trainees, on a long-term perspective without finding a job in the regular first labour market despite being highly qualified[2]. We urge, thus, for drafting and implementing European legislation setting common standards on internships for young people, for instance requiring internships of duration of more than three months to be remunerated, thus the Council recommendation “Quality Framework for Traineeships”, which does not call for remuneration, is not  enough. Unpaid internships, especially when over a long duration, tend to exclude young people who cannot afford to work without pay. This will have the consequence that a more and more exclusive system perpetuates itself, with already privileged people gaining and securing access to quality jobs. A working situation that plans to exist for longer than three months should be paid because though it will cost the employer on the one hand and he or she might be less enthusiastic to hire yet another intern, we create jobs and work-conditions and experiences on the other hand, that are valuable for both employer and employee. In this regard, we consider the European Youth Guarantee, which aims as getting young people into employment or formal education after a maximum of four months, as a good start. Nevertheless we call the European Commission towards greater facilitation of the Youth Guarantee throughout eligible member states as so far, not all respective countries have already implemented specific programmes.  Furthermore, we are alarmed about the Eurobarometer results from April 2014 that show that almost eight out of ten young people have not heard of this programme[3]. The possible adverse effects of the Youth Guarantee should also not be neglected: in the long-term, efforts need to be made towards integrating young people into the regular labour market so to avoid recurring loops of training and internships. Beyond issues regarding employment in this secondary labour market, we are wary of young people who accept jobs as undeclared work in cases of not being able to find regular employment. Therefore, we urge member states to take the European Commission’s proposal on a ‘European Platform to enhance cooperation in the prevention and deterrence of undeclared work’ very seriously and to eventually implement it once agreed upon.

Particularly in countries where vocational training has not yet been a common practice, temporary employment in the framework of education has often been left to precarious conditions.

As a third point, we want to highlight positive experiences with vocational training schemes in several member states. These specific educational systems allow for a closer match between young people’s skills and the economy’s needs. Countries such as Germany or Austria, with the EU’s currently lowest youth unemployment rates of 7.7% and 10.0%, respectively, have shown the benefits of such systems.[4] Therefore, we urge politicians to re-consider the introduction of vocational training schemes also in other Union countries, for instance by institutionalising cooperation between business associations and trade unions as well as universities and other institutions of vocational training. This should aim at facilitating the creation of training profiles targeted at economic needs so that young people do not risk unemployment subsequent to the completion of formal education. Also, these measures should include the option of joint vocational training programmes across European borders as well as engaging in best-practice schemes to learn from neighbouring regions. Particularly in countries where vocational training has not yet been a common practice, temporary employment in the framework of education has often been left to precarious conditions. Therefore, it will have to be ensured that apprenticeships truly facilitate career progression for the virtue of young people and not just simply for the balance sheets of hiring companies.

Fourth, we want to promote the issue of youth entrepreneurship by developing young people’s entrepreneurial skills through courses and support initiatives, not limited to those attending universities but across all kinds of education institutions. Whilst our generation needs to be given chances, we also need to create them ourselves. Therefore, youth entrepreneurship forms a crucial element in combatting youth unemployment. Herein, we particularly want to stress that administrative burdens for business creation need to be reduced and finance and funding for setting up one’s own business as a young person also requires improvement. We consider the European Progress Microfinance Facility, which has already handed out loans and guarantees worth 182 million Euros to over 20,000 entrepreneurs, as a valuable initiative in this regard. However, we would like to see the European Commission targeting this measure more specifically to young people as currently, not even 6% of applicants has been under the age of 25. Moreover, a study has also found that there is a large mismatch between demand and supply of microloans for entrepreneurs, amounting to €2.7 billion needed throughout Europe. Therefore, we urge member states to make use of their European Social Fund and European Regional Fund resources to broaden national microfinance schemes.

Moreover, fifth, we recommend a wider access to mentoring programmes which should help young people during the transition between different strands of education and particularly also between education and employment. Several examples of such initiatives, including  ‘Arbeiterkind’ and ‘Rock your life’ in Germany, have shown that these types of programmes can have a positive impact on aiding young people in taking satisfying personal choices on their professionals lives, which lead to lower dropout rates (which in turn are eventually beneficial on the macro-economic level as well). These programmes should particularly facilitate knowledge transmission between different generations, which also leads to another point: we consider it vital to evaluate additional measures that could strengthen the cooperation between various generations – solutions that could both alleviate the burdens of a young generation struggling to get a head start into employment and an increasingly ageing society in all European countries. Such initiatives could include, inter alia, cross-generational houses where people of different ages live together and support each other in their lives.

Finally, we want on call decision-makers to reconsider policies on reducing macro-economic imbalances across Europe by taking sustainability seriously; sustainable investments can create jobs and eventually growth, and this is currently a neglected idea in policy-making circles. As argued above, an integrated market has now become a reality in Europe – a fact that brings numerous advantages to European citizens, yet we also have to cope with its consequences. Thus, we want to propose such reconsiderations that could potentially also include investments into public employment services as these can potentially serve as an alley towards enhancing the above mentioned points such as better job matching, training young people according to labour market needs as well as promoting cross-border mobility.

All in all, we think that these proposals will be fruitful in fighting exploding youth unemployment rates in Europe and eventually empowering the young generation – which will, last but not least, be the hope for all generations to come.

[1] Eurofound (2014). Mapping Youth Transitions in Europe. Luxembourg: Publications Office of the European Union.

[2]  See for instance here: Furze, Brian, Pauline Savy, Robert J. Brym, and John Lie (2011). Sociology in Today’s World. Second edition. Cengage Learning, p. 136, and: Samek Ludovici, Manuela, and Renata Semenza (eds., 2012). Precarious Work and High-Skilled Youth in Europe. Milano: FrancoAngeli, pp. 11-6.

[3]  European Parliament (2014). Flash Eurobarometer of the European Parliament. European Youth in 2014 – Analytical synthesis. Brussels: European Parliament.

[4]  http://epp.eurostat.ec.europa.eu/cache/ITY_PUBLIC/3-28112014-AP/EN/3-28112014-AP-EN.PDF

Angelika Schenk: PhD candidate in European Law and Politics at University of Bremen; Chair Political Commission on Internal European Policy of the NGO ‘JEF Europe’.

Leonie Martin: LLM candidate in European and International Law Vrije Universiteit Brussel; Co-chair Political Commission on Internal European Policy of JEF Europe.