This blog is provided by the Common Sense Society of Budapest as an online, English-language platform for the publication and exchange of diverse and differing perspectives about Hungarian politics, economy, and culture. The views represented here are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of CSS. The Common Sense Society does not receive funding from any government entity or political party.
As youth unemployment in Europe hits new records – 23.7% by the end of 2012 according to Eurostat – media discourse more frequently attaches the label “lost generation” to young Europeans. They are generally accused of being spoiled and pampered, leeching off their parents and unwilling to work, politically impassive and generally apathetic. However, as a representative of the “lost generation,” things are not as simple as they seem on the surface.
To avoid using the pessimistic term “lost generation,” EU policy-makers have coined the more neutral acronym “NEET” – “not in employment, education, or training.” Becoming a NEET is today the worst fear of any young European. Eurofound’s report on youth unemployment in Europe estimates that in 2011, NEETs cost member states €153bn (nearly $200bn—roughly 1.2% of the EU’s GDP) through welfare costs and lost tax contributions. Several countries have even paid in excess of 2% of their GDP: Bulgaria, Cyprus, Greece, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Latvia, and Poland.
Nevertheless, despite huge losses to the economy caused by NEET Europeans, governments seem unable to deal effectively with the issue and the rate of youth unemployment is still strikingly high.
How did we get here?
The growing numbers of NEETs are often painted as idle, vacant, and unwilling to enter adult life and take responsibility for their actions. Yet, the role of their parents’ generation’s economic choices is often minimized or completely forgotten.
The 1990s, the time of childhood for today’s 20-somethings, was marked by a consumption boom in Europe. Colorful TV ads, shiny shopping malls, and endless lines of beautiful Barbies and LEGO models were commonplace parts of every child’s over-stimulated imagination. The digital revolution has brought new “toys” for growing kids – computers, tape players, CD players, MP3 players, iPods, mobile phones, smartphones, laptops, tablets – and rising incomes have enabled doting parents to provide a higher quality of life for their children than previously thought possible.
The road to hell is paved with good intentions, however, and my generation has become a hostage to the easy consumption it has enjoyed for free for so long. Simultaneously, various media have fostered a narrow image of the “good life,” according to which one must be educated, independent, and accomplished by the age of 30 in order to have a good-paying job, a full family, extensive travel opportunities, and a vibrant social life filled with expensive restaurants, night clubs, and gym memberships
Good education was thought to be a direct path to the Promised Land, and both parents and children sincerely believed that a university degree was a ticket to a better life. Turns out, it wasn’t, since getting into university is no longer an exclusive advantage of the brightest or richest. Today practically everyone has at least one Bachelor degree—even two Master’s degrees are not considered particularly outstanding. University and graduate diplomas are not necessarily safeguards against the dreaded NEET-status.
Once a young person decides to become financially independent, he experiences the shock of forced austerity because of the necessary spending cuts he must make on the commodities he is used to enjoying for free. No wonder that for today’s youngsters entering adult life seems to be expulsion from paradise. It is so stressful that they prefer to postpone this decision by getting one degree after the other, doing traineeships and internships, and find whatever pretext they can to stay on their parents’ allowance.
Of course, young people want to work and sincerely desire financial independence. But when they approach the job market with certain expectations about the jobs they are qualified for and entitled to, the actual existing jobs seem unfair and inadequate. Becoming a sales manager with a Master’s degree in anthropology is considered an affront to the individual’s sense of intelligence and ambition. Many young Europeans wind up taking positions that boost their ego – like internships in their specific subfield of interest – rather than a steady, good-paying job.
The European Union recognizes the problem of the “lost generation” as one of the most critical facing Europe. In 2010 it adopted the Europe 2020 flagship initiative “Youth on the Move” and the 2012–2013 “Youth Opportunities” initiatives calling for joint effort from Member States, businesses, social groups, and the EU itself in order to help address the youth challenge.
This challenge, however, is more than just youth unemployment caused by economic crisis. It is a tectonic shift in the socioeconomic and cultural model, where old tools of social mobility do not function anymore. The best response lies, first of all, in young people reexamining their own mindsets: Are we hiding behind the words “economic crisis” in hopes of better opportunities in the future, or are we adjusting to existing realities today? Young Europeans should stop waiting for societal changes and take individual responsibility for their futures. Past generations have had their own challenges. We must face ours.
–Maria Sheviakova is an intern for CSS Budapest and a Master’s student at the Willy Brandt School of Public Policy in Germany.