avatar
Why Europe Can’t Just “Fix” Youth Unemployment


For years already, the youth of Europe’s heavily indebted periphery has been facing mass unemployment. In Greece and Spain, a respective 59 and 56 percent of young people are now out of work, while youth unemployment in the EU as a whole currently stands at a troubling 24 percent, up from 22.5 percent last year. The “lucky” ones are those waiting tables with PhD degrees in their back pockets. Those who were forced to leave their families and friends behind to join the generational exodus to Germany or Angola don’t even show up in the statistics.

In recent weeks, European leaders somewhat belatedly seem to have become mightily interested in the issue. Italy’s new Prime Minister Enrico Letta called youth unemployment the most serious problem facing his country and called for an EU plan to “combat” it. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, flag-bearer of the European austerity movement, similarly considers youth unemployment to be “Europe’s biggest challenge.” Meanwhile, a new campaign by Big Think somewhat naively asks “what’s causing youth unemployment and what can fix it?”

Apart from the obvious hypocrisy of these concerns — coming from the lips of the same officials whose unrelenting insistence on austerity, neoliberal reforms and full debt repayment largely caused the unemployment crisis to begin with — this newfound sympathy for our generation’s plight hinges on a dangerous assumption that serves to ideologically re-construct youth unemployment as a “problem” that can somehow be “solved” with a magic fix or a continental master plan — without addressing the underlying causes of austerity, depression, and a fundamentally unsustainable debt load, let alone the internal contradictions of the eurozone and globalized financial capitalism more generally.

It should be clear to any intelligent person by now that youth unemployment is not a problem in the ordinary sense of the word; it is a symptom of a much more deep-seated disease that’s breaking down our society from within. Other symptoms include the rise of neo-Nazism and xenophobic violence in Greece; the wave of suicides across Southern Europe; the 400.000 families that have been evicted from their homes in Spain; the thousands of starving horses that have been abandoned by their owners in Ireland; the UK students who had their tuition fees tripled and now face the prospect of either dropping out, studying abroad, or accruing massive student debts; the eurozone record levels of mortgage debt held by Dutch households, etc., etc. — not to mention the thorough discrediting of democratic institutions and the massive riots that have rocked major European capitals like London, Athens, Madrid, Lisbon and Rome.

But European leaders seem blind to the metastasis of misery that has crept into the social fabric of our continent. Wouldn’t it be great, they now seem to tell us, if we could have crippling austerity, an increasing debt load, a devastating social crisis, starving pensioners, the return of fascism, a wave of suicides and mass deprivation — but without the youth unemployment? I’m not buying this story, and I don’t think any of us should. The attempt to cast the current crisis in generational terms serves to drive a wedge between us and our unemployed, indebted and/or retired (grand)parents. It serves to co-opt the youth in the ongoing wave of neoliberal reforms, making us believe it is in our best interest to crack down on the labor rights, jobs and pensions of our parents so we ourselves can better compete for the increasingly precarious jobs of the future.

The real reason European leaders are suddenly so concerned about youth unemployment — while they remain unmoved by the plight of Greek AIDS patients, for instance, who now can’t get their anti-retroviral drugs — is simply that they are terrified by the prospect of social unrest. As the New York Times reported today, “it is clear that policy makers are seriously worried that millions of frustrated young job seekers pose as much of a threat to the euro zone as excessive government debt or weak banks.” German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble literally admitted that “We will have to speed up in fighting youth unemployment, because otherwise we will lose the support, in a democratic way, in some populations of the European Union.” What they fear, in other words, is a continent-wide youth uprising. At its worst, their plans to “fix” youth unemployment serve to distract us from the obvious class dimension at play, promoting the illusion that the social crisis we face is just a series of economic problems that can be fixed without radical changes to the political status quo.

The inconvenient truth is that unemployment is an integral element of the neoliberal policy response to the crisis pursued by the European Union and the IMF. This, in itself, is nothing new. IMF austerity programs in the developing world have long involved dramatic reductions in wages and rises in unemployment. Careful quantitative analysis of the Latin American debt crisis of the 1980s has recognize that its austerity programs “boost unemployment and lower paychecks.” Most importantly, the authors of a 2011 IMF report, Painful Medicine, conclude that austerity causes not just short-term but “particularly long-term unemployment.”

In other words, asking for austerity measures without youth unemployment is like insisting on the medieval practice of blood-letting without the blood-loss. It is not only brutal, but also practically impossible. Austerity and unemployment are like Siamese twins, conjoined at the hip, designed to strengthen and reinforce one another. As long as the EU and IMF keep imposing these highly destructive adjustment measures, unemployment will keep on rising. The only genuine “solution” to unemployment, therefore, would be to break free from the shackles of austerity and to default on the foreign debt. This is the reformist vision pursued by SYRIZA in Greece, and despite the lack of revolutionary imagination of this quasi-Keynesian approach, there is certainly something to be said for it from a humanitarian point of view.

At the same time, I have now written some 50,000 words on this question — why not default? – for my PhD thesis, showing precisely why the option of default is often so elusive. In a word, default would greatly harm the interests of foreign private creditors, who just happen to control virtually all the critical resources in the global economy, giving them a disproportionate ability to block the type of solutions that would favor the unemployed. So to get to the phase where we can even realistically start considering genuine “solutions” to the “problem” of youth unemployment, we first have to confront the financial power structures that obstruct the pursuit of such solutions to begin with. This requires much more than a continental master plan to combat youth unemployment. It requires a radical break with the status quo.

Our problems, in short, are not due to a lack of innovative ideas; they are due to an excess of financial power concentrated within the hands of a tiny elite of bankers. This means we have to dramatically reformulate our question. Rather than asking what innovative ideas can solve the problem of youth employment, we should be asking what type of strategies could upend the structural power of international creditors. This leads us away from economics and back into the realm of revolutionary theory and praxis. How could Europe’s downtrodden youth ever possibly conceive of shaking the global financial order? It is to this impossible question that I will turn in my next post. 

Leave a comment