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Europe’s Jobless Generation – Discontented, Disillusioned and Demanding Change

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Europe’s Jobless Generation

Discontented, Disillusioned and Demanding Change

Record numbers of young Europeans are out of work—setting the stage for a familiar pattern to emerge.

Learn the why behind the headlines.

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A warm breeze blows on a spring day as hundreds of young men and women fill a main square in one of Europe’s biggest cities. Some brandish signs: “Down with the government!” “Stop the EU!” “We want jobs!” “No more pain!”

By nightfall, masses of colorful tents begin to appear—as do temporary toilets and shower facilities. Police arrive in armored vehicles and forcibly disperse the crowd. As those who resist are dragged away, they scream: “Pigs!” “Traitors!” “Scum!”

Pierre-Philippe Marcou/AFP/Getty Images

Demanding change: Demonstrators clash with riot police during a protest against unemployment in Naples, Italy (Nov. 12, 2012).

In retaliation, one of the protest leaders calls for a mass rally via Twitter. Thousands descend upon the square. They once again set up a makeshift city and challenge police to remove it. This movement mushrooms to tens of thousands of people in Spain, Italy, Greece and other European countries.

In another nation, thousands amass in front of a government headquarters to oppose budget cuts. Waving “No more austerity!” and “Vote them out!” placards, demonstrators shout obscenities against prominent politicians, most notably the prime minister and minister of finance. As their chanting intensifies, they hurl rocks at the building, which break several windows.

They storm the edifice and a wild melee erupts with security guards desperately holding off the frenzied mob.

Riot police move in and a young man launches a Molotov cocktail, forcing officers to run for cover. At the same time, the crowd pelts them with rocks and wounds several.

Police throw tear gas and spray protesters with rubber bullets. The baton-wielding officers then wade into the sea of youth.

Mario Laporta/AFP/Getty Images
Running Wild: Demonstrators clash with riot police during a protest against unemployment in Naples, Italy (Nov. 12, 2012).

Amid the chaos, ambulances rush to attend the wounded. The bloodied but unbowed crowd eventually disperses, but vows revenge.

In other cities, demonstrations escalate more quickly. Protesters burn cars, smash windows, vandalize buildings, and loot stores. Such scenarios are typical of those playing out across Europe.

Youth aggression springs from the hopeless mood spreading throughout the continent.

A young Greek woman explained her desire for change to the BBC: “I have a degree, I speak several languages and I have something to offer the country but they don’t let me, there are no opportunities.”

She and her friends speak of revolution.

Young people, frustrated with the lack of long-term employment, are rising up. Feeling they have nothing to lose, they are venting their anger on governments, businesses and anyone they feel has betrayed them. Known in the UK as “NEETS” (not in employment, education or training), they are determined to change the status quo.

The United Nation’s International Labor Organization has warned that riots similar to those that broke out in Britain in the summer of 2011 are likely to reoccur.

David Ramos/Getty Images
Desperate: Top, job seekers line up for an interview during a job fair in Barcelona, Spain (Nov. 29, 2012).

“The current situation for many young people in many EU countries is becoming dramatic,” the EU Commissioner for Employment, Social Affairs and Inclusion Laszlo Andor said in a statement. “Without decisive action at [the] EU and national level we risk losing this generation…”

According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, Europe is “failing in its social contract,” which could spark increasing disenchantment with the political system and cause a chain of events similar to what occurred with the Arab Spring.

The stage is being set for a drastic upheaval.

Youth in Crisis

The numbers paint a grim picture. Upwards of one-fifth of European youth are unemployed—with little hope of finding a job. Since the 2008 economic crisis, unemployment has risen by 50 percent. According to a Guardian article, well over one-half of Greek and Spanish youth do not have jobs (58 percent and 55 percent, respectively). In Portugal and Italy, it is well over one-third (39 percent and 37 percent). Even in relatively prosperous France and Britain, the numbers are one-quarter (27 percent) and one-fifth (20 percent).

Unemployment has made it difficult for young people to move away from home and start lives of their own. Close to one-half (46 percent) of those younger than 34 still live with at least one parent. It is common to find a well-educated 30-year-old with a master’s degree still living with his parents.

The stories are rife with despair.

  • One woman with a degree in literature and languages from France’s elite Sorbonne University has been unable to find a job after four years—even as a housecleaner!
  • A highly qualified quintilingual Italian lawyer lamented, “I have every possible certificate…I have everything except a death certificate.” Even with a law degree and a master’s degree, she has not been able to secure a permanent job and is instead working as an unpaid trainee. As she ruefully told The New York Times, “I am a repentant college graduate…if I had it to do over, I wouldn’t go to college and would just start working.”
  • One young man stated, “I’ve been out of work for a year now…I keep going to places handing my CV in, even begging the landlord of pubs, managers of shops, literally going down on my knees” (BBC).
  • Another young Frenchwoman, who was laid off from her factory job, expressed her outrage to The Christian Science Monitor. “Something’s not working in our system, but we don’t need to accept it.”
  • The lack of opportunity is also causing some to turn to crime. One young British man joined a gang and became a burglar to make ends meet. Explaining the rationale behind his decision to The New York Times he said, “I just don’t care anymore…I am sick of living like rubbish.”

Underlying Causes

The current European generation is the first since the second world war to have dimmer prospects than their parents. The 27-state power bloc is mired in recession. It has never recovered from the global slump of 2008. Saddled with enormous debts and prodded by the EU, individual governments have imposed strict austerity measures to rein in spending.

Pierre-Philippe Marcou/AFP/Getty Images
Rally Together: Demonstrators protest against Spain’s economic and jobless crisis at Puerta del Sol square in Madrid, Spain (May 26, 2011).

Vast numbers are employed directly by governments or by businesses that cater to civil servants and depend on government contracts. According to the European Personnel Selection Office, the European Union alone employs more than 40,000 people from all EU member states, many with permanent and fixed-term contracts. In addition, there are also those who work for the governments inside of their home countries. Government cutbacks mean job cutbacks.

Due to the nature of typical employment contracts in Europe, young people are often the last hired and the first fired. Tough labor laws make it virtually impossible to fire tenured employees and companies are often reluctant to hire young workers. When they do, it is often on a temporary contract, which accounts for nearly 42 percent of young workers. Temporary contracts enable organizations to easily get rid of staff when deemed necessary and not have to pay benefits.

All of this has wrecked the career aspirations of many young Europeans, even well-educated ones.

Despite this gloomy scenario, however, there are still over three million unfilled jobs in Europe. Why the dichotomy?

One reason is the mismatch between the qualifications of young people and the requirements for jobs. Many university graduates have degrees that are unsuitable for the current job market and companies are looking for workers who can hit the ground running with minimal training. Degrees in subjects such as “media,” “history,” “sociology,” “literature,” “languages” and other similarly broad areas are not attractive to most employers.

But this does not explain the entire problem. Many of the three million available positions are nontechnical, in the service industry, and lower-wage jobs.

A deeper reason lies in a trend noticed by employers: unrealistic expectations. This includes a disdain for having to start at the bottom and gradually working up the company ladder. Instead, many only want their ideal job at the salary they demand.

Business managers find this untenable. Responding to a Cabinet minister’s call on businesses to hire more homegrown workers, the director general of the Chamber of Commerce in defending UK businesses replied that employers “expect young people to come forward to them who are able to read, write and communicate and have a good work ethic and too often that’s not the case…” (London Evening Standard).

The Telegraph reported that the situation is similar in Scotland. One of the nation’s largest car dealerships told the Scottish Parliament that, of 2,280 applications received for the company’s apprentice program, only 430 were deemed employable. Of those, only 121 were offered jobs.

Incredibly, four-fifths of applicants were considered unemployable! The dealership described how many expressed shock at the length of a working day given that university students spend a maximum of 18 hours per week in class.

Other problems cited were “applicants’ poor attitude and communication skills, a lack of understanding of the standards expected and a ‘culture of wholly unrealistic expectations.’”

One employed young man who works the late shift at a train station explained the attitude of his peers to The Christian Science Monitor: “Too many of my friends don’t work, have never worked, and don’t know the value of work…They are into football and video games. They think about tomorrow or the day after tomorrow. They don’t want to make decisions until they have to.”

Later in the article, he stated: “I think the internal drive to make something of yourself is disappearing in Britain…We can’t be great again. That’s how people feel.”

Another employed young man who is bucking the trend also said of his generation: “Other generations were living in good times, and we expected to take a ride on that…We saw bad times coming and did nothing. Our future is in our hands. You have to fight for it, just as our parents fought for their future” (ibid.).

Employers have lamented that these traits are far too rare. As a result, many available jobs are either offered to ambitious immigrants from third-world countries or left unfilled.

Pampered Generation

Many blame young people themselves, yet anyone who is able to function effectively in life had to first be taught. With this in mind, a prevalent societal trend provides a clue to the depth of the problem.

Consider this scenario: At a local supermarket, a rosy-cheeked girl grabs an item from the shelf. Hurrying to finish shopping, her mother tells her to put it back.

“No!” she retorts, shaking her head vigorously.

Clearly agitated, her mother repeats the command. “Sweetie, put that back. You can’t have that.”

The little girl looks her square in the eye and says, “No!” again, this time much louder.

Flustered, the now red-faced mother commands her, this time raising her voice. The little girl raises hers in response.

After several requests followed each time by a firm “No!” the exasperated mother forcibly wrenches the item out of her daughter’s hand and puts it back on the shelf.

Instantly, the girl lets out a wail that reverberates across the supermarket. Several heads turn to see what is wrong. Embarrassed, the mother hushes her daughter, but the little girl proceeds to flop down in the middle of the aisle, unwilling to move from the floor.

After several unsuccessful attempts to pick her up, her mother desperately promises to give her the item, but only if she is “a good girl.” Her mother then takes the item and places it in the supermarket cart. Satisfied, the little girl stops wailing. She has won the battle of wills.

This scenario plays out regularly in European stores, malls and other public places in which parents are continuously tested by uncontrollable children. Complicating matters are strict governmental regulations on childrearing.

Parents, however, are not guiltless. On average, British families spend a whopping $16,000 on toys for each of their children before they turn age 19. Even those barely past toddler stage have the latest smartphones, technological gadgets, and designer clothes.

Due to the continuous acquisition of material goods without being taught to work for them, children often automatically expect to receive what they have not earned.

The general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers warned that children are being turned into spoiled “little Buddhas.” She told The Telegraph, “It seems to be that far too many children are waited on at home hand and foot. They don’t do the washing up, they don’t do the Hoovering [vacuuming], they don’t make their own beds. We are not doing our children any favours…”

She warned that youth “without boundaries at home resent boundaries at school.”

According to a survey conducted by Cambridge University and commissioned by the National Union of Teachers, overindulgent parents who cannot say no to their children are making them prone to rebellion and bad behavior.

Additionally, the British prime minister’s adviser on childhood stated that parents are insulating their children, leaving them unable to cope with living on their own when they grow up.

In short, permissive parenting has produced a young narcissistic generation accustomed to being taken care of—an entitled generation.

Prevailing Mindset

An overall sense of entitlement is reinforced by the general pattern of European society in which citizens are given generous benefits, both by governments and businesses. Pensions are so high that workers in countries such as Greece and Italy can retire in their 50s. Vacations are long, with a study by the international human resources firm Mercer Consulting showing that the average minimum vacation and public holiday allotment is 34 days. Depending on the country, it can range anywhere from 28 to 39 days. Healthcare is free and many jobs have been virtually guaranteed because of the difficulty in firing employees. This is particularly true in the public sector and in heavily unionized private sector industries.

For those not working, welfare benefits include free healthcare, child care and housing benefits. In one case, two graduate students in Denmark were able to afford having a child even though they were not working because of a government child care benefit, plus a monthly stipend for students.

In France, National Public Radio reported that immigrants automatically qualify for free coverage under its extensive healthcare system after gaining residency.

This level of government service has been the case for generations. In Europe, the state takes care of its citizens so routinely that people have come to expect it. This then drives the overall sense of entitlement many Europeans feel. That is why, when there is any threat to government programs, protests erupt.

The news is often filled with stories about teachers on strike—postal workers off the job—railway staff deliberately moving slowly—farmers spilling produce in the streets—workers blockading factories—and government employees not showing up for work. Many of these incidents then result in clashes between police and protesting employees.

In 2010, when the French government announced it would raise the retirement age from 60 to 62, violent protests erupted across the country. The new government has now promised to return the retirement age to 60.

Two years later, the Portuguese government backed down from its proposed increase in social security tax. In 2013, the Bulgarian government resigned amid protests about austerity measures.

The entitlement cycle continues with each government cave-in. It is very similar to a parent giving in to a child who is throwing a temper tantrum in a supermarket!

This entrenched sense of entitlement forces governments to deliver what citizens demand. This has been the pattern of history. European governments are regularly voted in and out of power depending on whether a politician has delivered the goods. This in turn engenders constant turnover.

Italy is one example. Since World War II, it has experienced over 50 different governments.

There have been many changes in other countries as well. During the French Revolution, when the citizens tired of the king, they rose up, overthrew him, and established a democracy. In England, the monarch was reduced to a figurehead and Parliament was established.

Another European pattern seen throughout history has been the rise of a strongman in times of crisis. Spanish dictator Francisco Franco began to lead after a devastating civil war (1936-1939) and ruled with an iron fist until 1973. Another dictator, Antonio de Oliveira Salazar governed Portugal for decades until 1970. A brutal civil war in Greece after World War II resulted in military rule until 1974. Tito ruled Yugoslavia for decades until his death, Ceausescu slaughtered thousands in Romania, then there was the tyrant Hoxha in Albania, and of course the more well-known Stalin in Russia, Mussolini in Italy, and Hitler in Germany.

Modern European history is rife with dictators coming to power in times of despair. In fact, many European nations only became democracies in the second half of the 20th century.

New Leader?

With the current economic crisis showing no signs of abating, governments and businesses continue to cut jobs and benefits. Europeans see no light at the end of the tunnel. No high-level jobs in sight. They are frustrated, exasperated and disillusioned. Not knowing where to turn, they want change. They want jobs, they want benefits, and they want a leader who will make it happen. They want someone in power who will take care of them.

Europe has repeatedly given power to one man. History is replete with pan-European rulers such as Justinian, Charlemagne, Otto the Great, and Charles von Habsburg who ruled with iron fists—yet delivered periods of abundance.

Everything is in place for a new charismatic leader to electrify Europe—and deliver the lifestyles EU youth desire.

The forces are in motion. The stage is set. Keep watching as history repeats itself!


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