Mention European youth, and most people think about unemployment. Stories of staggering numbers of youth without jobs have made their way through media and society. Southern Europe especially is perceived as raising one giant lost generation with few prospects, save extremism and crime. This is bad news – the European Union project will only be able to succeed if its youth succeed.
But how true are these dire assessments? That’s what we wanted to find out when we started a comprehensive seven-week European tour this spring. Supported by the German Mercator Foundation and the Heinrich Böll Foundation, we two young Germans visited 22 cities in 14 countries to meet fellow young Europeans and hear their side of the story. We had seen enough statistics, data, and research explaining the European crisis. We wanted to get the personal accounts of the people behind the numbers.
What we found is twofold. Yes, Europe’s youth is suffering during the economic crisis. In fact, we discovered stories much worse than those we’d heard. But we also found that young Europeans have enormous untapped potential to not only overcome this crisis, but to advance the whole continent toward a more interconnected and tolerant union. The success of this will depend entirely on our generation’s willingness to move beyond insular self-preservation, commit to big ideas, and to engage in actions to fix the problems that beset Europe – and our future.
Plenty of education, but few jobs
Before we started, we thought we might find a Europe divided into two rough halves: the North and West, where youth are doing fairly well; and Eastern and Southern Europe, where the crisis has hit hard. This was true only to an extent, as we noticed quickly that even young Swedes, Brits, and Belgians share a deep concern about their and their country’s future.
In Stockholm, we talked to a variety of Swedes from all over the country and learned that employment was far from certain for graduating college students or high-schoolers. In fact, a trend of offering jobs only in short-term contracts or in the form of internships makes it difficult for young people to settle down in high-rent Stockholm. This was more or less true in all the countries we visited, though for different reasons.
In countries such as Sweden and Germany, issues of youth job security lack passionate spokesmen in the parliaments, which tend to support the needs of their voters in an aging or retired population. In countries such as Spain, Italy, and Greece, which have weakened economies, a comparatively young population is engaged in fierce competition for the few jobs available.
In Greece, where youth unemployment rates are at 61 percent, it is difficult to find a job as a waiter or waitress, though one may hold two master’s degrees.
While there are country-to-country differences that explain the insecurity many young Europeans are facing, it is important to see this issue as a related trend across Europe: Youth are chronically underrepresented in all national parliaments and enter a job market dominated by elders’ interests and lobbying.
Migration and xenophobia
Our second major finding deals with inner European migration and perspectives on ethnic minorities. The current flow of migration is from the South and East to the North and West. Accordingly, in Spain, Italy, Greece, Bulgaria, and Romania we were told again and again that young people have little opportunity in their home countries and have to move to Germany, Britain, the Netherlands, or Nordic countries in order to find decent jobs and build their careers.
Young people in these destination countries have started to worry about potential competition for the jobs at home. The most extreme case we found was in Britain, where many young people expressed deep concerns about emigrants from the Balkans, who were allegedly taking advantage of Britain’s better social welfare system. This line of thought is a major reason many young Brits support their country leaving the European Union and might vote accordingly in the planned referendum in 2017.
All over Europe, a rise of populist conservative or right-wing parties fan fears of an immigration flood, often basing their rhetoric on xenophobic assumptions. Contrary to this rhetoric, the young people in Southern and Eastern Europe we talked to were anything but lazy and criminal. They were usually well educated, willing to work hard, and simply seeking a better life elsewhere in Europe.
Another Pan-European problem that is dangerously underestimated is the growing hostility toward Roma minorities, sometimes derogatorily called “Romany” or “Gypsy,” who have a population of more than 10 million inside the EU. Amnesty International reported in April that violence against Roma people is on the rise in Europe. In Bulgaria, Romania, and Hungary, youth told us that the Roma pose a major challenge in their countries. Some young people told us straight out that they despised the Roma, viewing them as criminal and parasitic.
One major aspect of the problem is that national and European politicians do not grant this topic the significance it deserves and requires. Too often the Roma discussion is left out of mainstream politics for fear of getting entangled in a touchy dialogue on race and ethnicity. Instead the topic is taken up mainly within the right wing, which further deepens problems of communication. The Roma issue is another example of a problem in need of comprehensive European dialogue, rather than shortsighted national approaches.
Most interconnected generation
There is a positive takeaway from our travels, however: We also witnessed incredible openness and interest in other young Europeans and were usually met with curiosity and friendship rather than skepticism and rejection.
Almost 30 years of Erasmus exchanges (a student foreign exchange program) have helped to connect the Continent and its young people at an unprecedented level. The freedom to travel and work within Schengen countries (the 26 EU countries that have abolished the need for passports or other forms of border control) has also created opportunities for cultural exchanges.
Young people’s willingness to move to other EU countries has initiated a process we call “Europeanization.” Our generation seems to be the first that truly experiences and lives a European life – without borders, walls, or travel restrictions; able to connect with others easily, whether through travels, social media, or the English language as a young lingua franca.
Young Europeans live a European life, even if they don’t feel connected to Brussels and its political institutions. The majority of those we interviewed identified themselves as European first, and as a member of their respective country second. For young Europeans, their continent is not about financial institutions, bailout programs, or austerity measures. To them, Europe is about people, friendships, freedom of travel, and finding purpose and income.
What really holds us back?
At the same time, many young people saw little chance that their individual actions would make a positive difference in their future, in their country, or in Europe.
In countries such as Spain, Italy, Greece, Bulgaria, and Romania, where ingrained corruption complicates the situation, interviewees regularly expressed a feeling of helplessness. In Spain, media and politics further this view – regularly describing young people as hopeless and lacking real prospects.
The grand irony is that Europe’s young generation is better educated than any previous generation. Never have so many young people been able to study, attain experiences abroad, and connect with their peers so easily.
So what is holding us back? Yes, corruption is a major problem. The job market is dire. And politicians don’t prioritize youth. But it would be wrong to assume that all problems facing young Europeans are external.
We found young Europeans to be generally hesitant or even unwilling to take action themselves to improve the situation in Europe, and at best, they were uncertain of how to begin. This seemed paradoxical. An entire generation, educated beyond compare, seems unable to raise its own voice and mold its future.
This is possibly a result of a general European cultural mentality that relies heavily on the state for security and protection, leading to uncertainty and frustration when the state defaults. Even deeper seems to be a generation-wide lack of willingness to show commitment. This is not only true in personal relationships, it also manifests itself in a reluctance to join political parties, clubs, associations, churches, and unions.
The economic crisis has pushed many young people in Europe into survival mode – finding a job and making a living – instead of civic engagement. Add to this a retreat into the world of online social networks and a tendency to identify primarily with like-minded peers.
The real solution
This shortsighted, self-centered thinking is preventing our generation from using our full creativity to tackle Europe’s greatest problems – especially those that most affect us. This crisis won’t be overcome by simply trying to survive; we must advance together.
In most countries, young Europeans generally care little about EU institutions, feel disconnected from European-level politics, and have a hard time relating to the EU’s original concept of peacekeeping and economic cooperation. Their own national affairs took precedence. This is partly the fault of politicians who must do more to engage our generation. But we also have to start getting involved and raising our voices in constructive ways. It’s up to us to save our generation.
Being politically active does not necessarily mean going into party politics. There are plenty of ways Europe’s youth can share their thoughts and take constructive action: They can join a nongovernmental organization; participate in public elections; write and submit articles; follow the news and form – and voice – their own opinions, rather than following stereotypes and oversimplifications; start their own company and share breakthroughs with others; be willing to consider new perspectives and engage with them; or participate in a peaceful demonstration or start their own. Engaged young Europeans are out there connecting and working along these lines every day.
We were fortunate to meet some of them. From student leaders and young journalists, activists, and actresses, to young entrepreneurs and avant-garde thinkers, we talked to women and men who will doubtlessly move not just themselves, but also their societies and our continent forward. Step by step these young people are pursuing their vision for more respect, cooperation, and friendship in Europe – and finding fulfillment in the process.
Spending time in Turkey and Ukraine was especially enlightening and touching. Here, we met young people who had truly committed to an idea and were ready to make sacrifices to move their vision forward. Though in different contexts, the young women and men of both Taksim Square and the Euromaidan protests stood up for a vision of freedom and peace – and were willing to fight for it. We were deeply impressed by their commitment.
It also reminded us Central Europeans, who have grown up in a time of peace and prosperity, that these ideals are not necessarily guaranteed and that they will require our utmost care to protect and foster them so that future generations may enjoy them as well.
Europe’s future will depend on this generation’s decision to either let this continent fall back into national hostilities and disunity, or truly live up to a vision of interconnectedness and diversity.
Vincent-Immanuel Herr studies North American studies at Free University in Berlin. Martin Speer studies economics at the Berlin School of Economics and Law. Read more about their project (Generation One) at their website, www.herrundspeer.de.