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Column: The reality of unemployment is being masked by emigration

With youth unemployment at 23 per cent, the European Union and policy makers have a collective responsibility and obligation to help the “Lost Generation”, writes Liam Aylward.

Liam Aylward

THE POPULAR RHETORIC of the moment is to speak of a “Lost Generation”, a generation without opportunity, a generation without hope and a generation with no future. However in meeting and talking with young people it is clear that no young person wishes to be boxed in this manner, to be sidelined while the economic and social crisis and recovery is waited out.

To accept this notion of a “Lost Generation” is tantamount to admitting defeat, to putting our hands up as policy makers and saying that there is nothing more that we can do for Europe’s young people, reinforcing the sense of disillusion which has taken root among this generation.

A bleak picture

Analysis and consideration of the statistics and data relating to young people in Europe paints a very bleak picture of their current situation and prospects for the future. OECD findings show that 26 million young people in the developed world are NEETS (not in education, employment or training). At the European level, youth unemployment is approaching 23 per cent and it is as high as 50 per cent in some member states.

However, the true reality of unemployment is currently being masked by emigration, particularly in the case of Ireland, and the large number of young people returning to or staying in education. There is also a tier of young graduates currently searching for work – highly qualified, yet unable to secure meaningful employment – receiving social welfare assistance or registered as unemployed, which should be factored into the debate.

The European Union, member state authorities, educators, industry and policy-makers have a collective responsibility and obligation to offer this generation more than a write off as a “Lost Generation” and to take them out of the limbo situation which they currently find themselves in.

The knock-on effect

The knock-on effects of this situation for young people will not just be limited to this generation. Studies show that those who start their careers under such difficult conditions are more likely to have lower wages and more spells of joblessness later in life as they lose out on the opportunity to acquire skills and self-confidence early in their career.

Furthermore, studies have demonstrated that the economic loss of unemployed young people is estimated at €153 billion per year for the EU. Failure to employ the young not only impacts on today’s economy, but it is crystal clear that it threatens growth in the future too.

The European Union has proposed several new initiatives in recent months aimed at reducing youth unemployment but also ensuring that the traineeships and work placements on offer are of real value to young people.  Under the Youth Guarantee Scheme, young people up to the age of 25 should receive either an offer of employment, further education or work-focused training at the latest four months after leaving education or after becoming unemployed.

Intervention is needed

Implementing the Youth Guarantee requires member states to establish strong partnerships with schools and universities, training providers, employment services, social partners, career guidance providers, youth support services and youth organisations to ensure early intervention and action.

The scheme will be funded by unspent money in the European Social Fund. The Youth Guarantee is part of the Youth Employment Initiative which has been allocated €6 billion under the future budget for the period 2014-2020. These funds will be available to member states to implement the Youth Guarantee Scheme and other schemes to assist young people in enhancing their skills and gaining meaningful employment.

Yet despite the downturn there are opportunities in Europe for young people. At present there are 2 million unfilled jobs available and industry observers say they cannot find young people with the right skill set to fill these roles. The mismatch between education and the skill set employers require highlights the need for reform. Investment in and re-targeting of education systems offers a practical approach to addressing the skills gap which is exacerbating the young unemployment crisis.

Businesses working with education institutions

The gap between education, research and business should be minimised with quality placements, internships and apprenticeships which will equip young people with the skills needed in the jobs market.  Companies also need to move towards closing the gap with increased engagement with education institutions and targeted graduate programmes.

Initiatives such as the REAP project in Ireland which draws up partnerships plans for employers and higher education institutions have the potential to compliment education while assisting young people in broadening their skills set and experience, a model which could be replicated across Europe.

The European Commission published a communication on “Rethinking Education: Investing in skills for better socio-economic outcomes” in November of last year. This has initiated a much needed debate on education in the member states and focused attention on the importance of investment in education and training for skills development as an essential prerequisite to boost growth and competitiveness.

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Education is the cornerstone to economic growth

By 2020, 20 per cent more jobs will require higher level skills, yet at present 70 million Europeans have low or no formal qualifications and 13.5 per cent of pupils have left school early. These disparities must be addressed if education and training are to be the cornerstones of economic growth and recovery.

While the responsibility and the instruments to undertake educational reform rest at member state level, it is clear that ambitious and successful reforms require a strong joint effort from both the EU and the member states. Practical action can be taken immediately at the European level to ensure that qualifications should open as many doors as possible. There needs to be stronger emphasis on EU transparency and cohesiveness to ensure that skills, qualifications and training are easily recognised across borders.

Rethinking and retargeting education will enable us to assist current and future generations in acquiring the skills and expertise needed. However this is a medium to long-term undertaking. To assist those currently experiencing unemployment in the immediate term, Ireland must take advantage of all initiatives and programmes which the EU is putting forward.

What’s out there?

Aside from the Youth Guarantee Scheme, €3 million has been set aside for young business starters and social entrepreneurs. The “Your First Eures Job” aims to help 5,000 young people find a job in the EU, Erasmus for Entrepreneurs has 600 placements for young entrepreneurs in small businesses across the EU and €1.3 million in European Social Fund technical assistance has been allocated to set up apprenticeship schemes with the goal of creating 370,000 new apprenticeship placements by the end of 2013.

These programmes and initiatives offer a starting point. They must be taken up at the member state level, implemented and supported so that young people are aware of what is on offer to assist them.

Talking about the tragedy of the “Lost Generation” offers little assistance. We must push at the EU and member state level for proactive and realistic approaches to tackling youth unemployment; approaches which will utilise the impetus and funding on offer and will give young people tangible and practical support in terms of education, training and work.

Liam Aylward is a Member of the European Parliament for Ireland and a member of the Committee on Culture and Education. He hosted a seminar in the European Parliament this month called “Rethinking Education” where he addressed leading European education experts and policy makers.

About the author:

Liam Aylward

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