Grievances rise among young Europeans

Job prospects and dreams fade with crisis.

By , Staff writer

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    Frustrated voices: A high school student shouts at a gendarme during a protest in Paris Thursday, three days after the government withdrew an educational reform plan. The government has since reversed its position.
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    Echoes of Athens? Students protested stalled education reforms last week in Marseille, southern France. With young people facing with fewer jobs and higher frustrations, leaders across Europe say they fear backlashes similar to the one that’s now rocking Greece.
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Two years ago it was called the “1,000 euro generation” – Europeans under age 30 who bounced around in short-term jobs that paid 1,000 euros a month.
Now, even that social label has been devalued. Today they are called the “700 euro generation” – young people entering what amounts to a huge, temporary workforce who can’t afford the life and security their parents took for granted.
Recession in Europe may hit hardest among the young – causing increasing worry among politicians about long-term effects. Unemployment rates are 20 percent to 30 percent for youth in Spain, Italy, France, and Greece – adding to an already tense situation. The plight of a 700 euro generation is a central problem on a continent where jobs are even more central to stability than in the more fluid US workforce, analysts say.

As European politicians watched young people in Athens shattering windows and protesting this month, many wondered if it could also happen elsewhere. So far, the temperature has not reached a boiling point – despite small protests in Barcelona, Spain; Madrid; Rome; and Bourdeaux, France.

"I don't think this is a classically 'angry' generation," says Matthieu Angotti, of the Research Center for Monitoring Living Standards. "It's different today, but the worry and pessimism are growing."

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So is the tinder pile of grievances. Jobs are fewer. Pessimism is deepening over unmet expectations. Divides are opening among generations. Europe's rigid employment systems are taxed, as are European families that bear the brunt of youths without work. Analysts say the financial crisis is forcing to the surface problems that have long been papered over – or that were seen as merely leftist ranting.

"We would be wrong to consider what's happening in Athens as an exotic upheaval in a setting of ancient ruins and blue sea," says the deputy editor of the Paris daily Liberation. "It's in Europe that revolts burst out ... Athens is not as far away as we think."

During the Athens rioting, French students outside the Greek Embassy in Paris expressed solidarity with Greek students. But when the shouting ended, many here said they were most upset about their own prospects: "We are further from, not closer to, real jobs," says Louis Degney, who attends the Sorbonne.

Malcolm Hammer, who helped organize student protests in Paris in 2005, calls this a "precarious generation." He claims some 1.1 million youths are now working in a low- or no-pay system of internships. "It is a huge labor force that underwrites the social safety net here at the expense of the young," he says.

There's evidence that jobs in many sectors are drying up. At a sports job center in Paris, a staffer says bluntly that when students ask how to find a job, he tells them to look overseas.

"A year ago, we had about 100 new jobs per month; now it is one job per week," says the staff member, who was not authorized to speak. "I tell kids to broaden their geographic horizon and look in Australia, Canada, the US, Switzerland – outside."

To be sure, dynamics behind the Greek riots aren't comparable to those in much of Europe. Greece, a more insular society, underwent a civil war in the 1950s and is divided between orthodox and leftist sentiments that run deeper than in most other EU states. Greek politics has been dominated for years by three main families; and its civil-society structures are considered less diffuse.

French authorities worry about small protests suddenly ballooning. Last week, for example, they withdrew a high school reform plan. Teacher and student groups took to the streets demanding more dialogue on the changes. French education chief Xavier Darcos then reversed his position. "I'm the minister of education, not the minister of hesitation," Mr. Darcos explained. Days later, he stated that further negotiations were needed, and that he would be "the minister of explanation."

Still, the problem of work and school in France, Spain, and Italy hits every level of the social stratum, says Mr. Angotti. Job scarcity runs from fishing to glass work, from advertising to marketing.

One recent Paris law graduate, who did not want to be named, spent six months working at the French Foreign Ministry and says, "I was not paid." She is now an intern. Some law firms in Paris are starting new recruits at a pay level of €700 a month, which is about $1,000. Aurlien Basse-Mayousee, an art history major in Paris, has worked a series of internships at art galleries. He is now settling for a part-time position in an elementary school and admits to feeling some "rancor" about that. [Editor's note: The original included the name of a source that had requested anonymity.]

Last summer, the issue was dramatized in a best-seller by Anna Sam, who has a master's degree in literature and has worked for eight years as a grocery clerk in Brittany. "Tribulations of a Cashier" sold 100,000 copies and described how a temporary job became a permanent position – and described a world that many French have little idea about.

Intrepid Italian graduate Elena Benigno came to Paris last year from Turin. Her three languages helped her get a job at Disneyland Paris for three months. She then went home. None of her fellow graduates had found permanent work, either. She is back for a Christmas stint at Disney. Her hopes to get a job at an art gallery here were dashed when she and the gallery discovered a rule requiring her college to have an agreement with a French employer.

A chief problem that Mr. Hammer and Hans Dietrich, of the Institute for Employment Research in Nuremberg, outline is a category called "technical employment," which brought large protests here in 2005. It is a system increasingly adopted around Europe in which employers turn to new graduates to do the same work as regular employees, but on short-term contracts with little pay and no expensive social taxes for employers. This system began here in the late 1990s as a stopgap for high numbers of job-seekers, but it has since become regularized. The numbers of French youths involved rose from 800,000 in 2005 to 1.1 million to 1.4 million today, depending on whether one adds the category of "apprenticeships." It is a huge figure in a country with a workforce of 25 million.

The French education system is only now starting to address the issue of major fields of study that students like, versus majors that are more vocational but have better job prospects. "This is a central question for society," says Hammer. "We don't have ghettos for young people – they don't exist outside society. But they aren't really allowed in unless they abandon the dreams of their parents. At the same time, it is families that are paying the price of this 'waiting room' of labor. Our generation loves its parents, but there is a strange tension as well."

The abandonment of dreams of "the good life" is an issue mentioned by many sources. The gap between expectations imparted in early schooling – and reinforced by parents and society – is only now undergoing a change here. Mr. Angotti says that the changes faced by the young "has happened in one generation. When you go through a series of bad internships, it has an effect."

"We now need to be more honest about what to expect, and stop the illusion that anyone is going to be able to afford an iPhone," says Frederic Bidault, a political blogger in Paris.

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