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The EU Youth Unemployment Crisis and the Cambridge Bubble

Posted: 04/02/2013 00:00

Glen Watson gives his views on the EU Youth Unemployment Crisis and how life outside the Cambridge bubble is not easy for young people:

The job-related hurdles facing today's young people are well-documented. With youth unemployment at an all-time high, combined with deep cuts to higher education, the situation doesn't look too promising for what some economists are speculatively referring to as the 'lost generation.' Multiplying the cause for concern is the sense that there isn't a political party that is inherently equipped to adequately unravel this mess.

Across the European Union, 22% of people between the ages of 15-24 are jobless, a figure that swells to as much as 50% in Greece and Spain. Long-term youth unemployment reveals an even starker reality: over 30% of young people have been unemployed for more than twelve consecutive months.

The state of affairs facing Europe's youth is more accurately depicted by the NEET concept - the total of young people not employed, in education or training. In 2011, there were more than one million NEETs in the United Kingdom, and an estimated 7.5million in the EU. If the age bracket is pushed from 24 to 29 that number balloons to over 14million, which is about 15% of the total number of young people in the EU.

Domestically, the government's plan and Labour's proposal both subsidize employers to provide stop-gap opportunities for young people, in the hope that it might somehow spur economic growth or at least offset the social costs associated with unemployment.

This country is notorious for playing politics with the issue though, as MP's queue up to gain favour with unemployed young people, eloquently hitting all of their talking points while contributing very little to the discourse. The cold reality is that no party is capable of adequately ring-fencing a partisan solution to a problem that extends far beyond Britain's borders.

If this issue is bigger than individual member states, perhaps the EU has a strategy to help improve the bleak forecast? For its part, the European Commission recently announced their four-stage plan, the Youth Employment Package. The most ambitious element is the Youth Guarantee, which urges Member States to ensure that young people up to 25 will either have a job, apprenticeship, or traineeship within four months of leaving school or becoming unemployed.

The idea of guaranteed jobs is a comforting thought, isn't it? Whether it's ultimately desirable for governments to provide largely artificial opportunities, regardless of whether we've armed ourselves with degrees in Physics or English literature is another question. The answer of course, depends on how central you believe the role of government is.

The risk is that European economies don't improve and employers are left with a steady stream of poorly paid, disposable young people. At the risk of stating the obvious, we need to create the type of career-building opportunities that our parents had.

To do this we must confront the obvious; the real problem is economic growth and lagging competitiveness. Historically, the economies that were innovative and growing would create new niches and sectors in which jobs were created. Today however, not enough European countries are doing this and the corollary effect is that young people aren't finding work.

Britain can't compete to be Europe's source of cheap labour, and government and industry must continue to work together to find innovative, long-term strategies that will create competition in new areas. Problematically though, this requires serious investment, a lot of time, and there is no guarantee that it would work.

But we go to Cambridge, where everyone knows that a non-vocational degree can easily be converted into a job in investment banking or management consulting. So why should we care about youth unemployment?

It's certainly easy enough for us to continue floating along in the 'Cambridge Bubble', which Urban Dictionary aptly describes as "the force field projected by the UL tower and has a radius that includes all university-owned sites and stops at the reality checkpoint lamppost in Parker's Piece" where the real world and "outside events cannot break through." But we should concern ourselves with this issue for two reasons.

The first is the emerging spectacle that is the growing numbers of well-educated unemployed and underemployed youth. Like in France, where many learned young adults drift from one internship to the next, struggling to find something permanent, traditionally elitist education systems like this one that seem to place more value on heady thinking than on technical skills, are arguably part of the problem.

As more young people British young people view university largely as a magical time where real world concerns are suspended for three years, they are implicitly risking contributing to the growing chasm between the skills that young people have and those that employers actually want. It would certainly be disingenuous not to admit that the value of the Cambridge brand makes this less likely of a concern for us, but the unemployment phenomenon has become so pervasive that perhaps the Cantab seal won't be as effective as protecting us as it has in the past. It's worth starting to think about how you plan on using the brand leverage to your advantage in an increasingly competitive job market.

At a cost of €153billion a year in lost productivity and social assistance benefits, NEETs are an expensive problem. Perhaps more importantly, it's impossible to put a price-tag on the unnerving psychological effects of chronic unemployment, which leads to the second reason why this is an imperative issue for us to consider.

If you've ever spent time at the Cambridge Union or have been involved with any of the impressive organizations that emanate here, you can appreciate the fact that there are a lot of future leaders among us. Those people would be doing themselves a real disservice by not beginning to contemplate the types of issues that are likely to define our generation.

The result of the unemployment crisis is that there is a growing segment of the population that is, and will continue to be a brewing powder-keg of discontent. We could very well find ourselves faced with a maturing generation of disenfranchised adults who have found that the opportunities afforded to them don't correspond to their expectations for life. While it might not feel like our problem yet, it's certainly going to become ours; either to find a solution or manage the fall-out. For these reasons, it's worth beginning to consider the EU youth unemployment crisis, even from the comfort of the Cambridge Bubble.

 

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