- The Guardian, Tuesday 1 April 2014 18.00 BST
In December 2008, in Athens, a «special security officer» shot dead a young student, igniting demonstrations, strikes and riots. Young people were at the forefront of the protests, in a country with a long tradition of youth participation in social and political movements. Several commentators at the time spoke of a «youth rebellion».
In late 2009 it became clear that Greece had been living through a period of false prosperity and was in effect bankrupt. The country fell into the tender embrace of the troika – the EU, the IMF and the European Central Bank. Following severe austerity measures in 2010-11, there were again mass demonstrations and strikes, culminating in the «movement of the squares» – protests against the destruction of private and social life. Young people were again prominent, lending enthusiasm and spirit to the movement.
Then there was nothing. As economic and social disaster unfolded in 2012 and 2013, the youth of Greece became invisible in social and economic life. The young have been largely absent from politics, social movements and even from the spontaneous social networks that have dealt with the worst of the catastrophe. On the fifth anniversary of the events of 2008, barely a few hundred young people demonstrated in Greek urban centres. There was no tension, no passion, no spirit, just tired processions repeating well-known slogans. Where were the 17-year-olds from five years ago?
Similar patterns can be observed in several other European countries, though perhaps not as extreme. What is the youth of Portugal doing as the country’s social structures continue to collapse? Where is the youth of France as the country drifts further into stagnation and irrelevance? And, closer to home, where has the youth of Britain been while the coalition government has persevered with austerity?
The answer seems to be that the European youth has been battered by a «double whammy» of problematic access to education and rising unemployment, forcing young people to rely on family support and curtailing their independence. Uncertain about the future, worried about jobs and housing, the youth of Europe shows no confidence and trust in established political parties. Significant sections have already been attracted to the nihilistic ends of the political spectrum, including varieties of anarchism and fascism. The left, traditionally a home for the radical strivings of young people, has lost its appeal.
Take education. As the Greek crisis deepened, large numbers of students were forced to accelerate, or even interrupt, their studies. There are no relevant official indicators of these trends, but anecdotal evidence abounds, and fits with other aggregate statistics. In 2008, Greek households spent, on average, 17% of their disposable income on education, and low-income families more than 20%. This was already a high proportion, reflecting the importance traditionally placed on schooling in Greek society. As the crisis unfolded over the next five years, the proportion doubled, making education an unbearable burden.
The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development reported that in 2011, 15% of people aged 15-29 were not in education, employment or training. In Greece, Ireland, Italy and Spain this proportion was 20%, and the latest EU data indicates that in 2012 things became worse in the three southern countries.
Conditions are even harsher with regard to work. Youth unemployment in Europe is a little short of 25%, already a huge number, while in Greece and Spain it has reached extraordinary figures, in the vicinity of 60%. Collapsing youth employment is clearly not the result of more young people seeking jobs, since the number of young people in Europe as a proportion of the population is declining fast. Youth unemployment is rising because the economies of Europe are failing to generate significant numbers of jobs. For those under the age of 25, there are no jobs in the southern countries and few decent jobs in the north. Mass youth unemployment is the reality across Europe, and things are far from rosy even in Germany, the supposed winner of the past few years.
The double whammy appears to have sapped the rebellious energy of the young, forcing them to seek greater financial help from parents for housing and daily life. This trend lies at the root of the current paradox of youth in Europe. There is little extreme poverty, and the young are relatively protected and well-trained, but their labour is not valued, their dreams of education are denied and their independence is restricted. As a consequence, frustration has grown. Yet, it cannot find an outlet in mainstream parties, including the left, which strikes many young people as far too timid. Even in Greece, where the official opposition of Syriza – the party of the left – is preparing for government, young people are looking askance at a party that seems unwilling to take radical action.
Matters cannot continue indefinitely along these lines. Frustration is mounting among both young people and their parents. But if those who make policy refuse to acknowledge the problem, major change could be delayed for a long time. The result would be a massive accumulation of sullen anger across Europe, with unpredictable outcomes. Those who care for social development had better take notice.