Ever since the global financial crisis of 2008, European youth employment has been hovering steadily around double the general unemployment percentages (figure 1), hitting as much as 24.7% in 2013. Just before the pandemic, through decade-long work on the matter, it was down to just 14.9%. Yet, the COVID-19 crisis and the following transition to digital workspaces halted the progress and even exacerbated existing issues in youth employment, such as tendencies of short-term job stints.
With the European economy being predicted to shrink by roughly one-tenth before the pandemic ends and general economic output being down by 20-30 percent in most European States, young workers will suffer the most. The current labour market trends are unsuitable for the young workforce, as rigid markets dominate Europe and experienced workers are much more likely to find sustainable long-term employment than their younger counterparts.
Is there a way to reinstate them into the market of immobilised Europe? How can we make sure the most tech-savvy generation of workers truly breaks into a digitalised labour market?
Covid-19 is not only an unprecedented healthcare crisis but also a financial one with an incredible economic downturn. This affects young people between ages of 15 and 29 disproportionately in a twofold manner. First, new job opportunities are nearly non-existent, and second, perhaps even more important, the common feature of past economic crises also flared up; young workers are the biggest age group losing their jobs in a permanent manner, getting furloughed or generally being at the end of cost-cutting measures of European businesses. This comes as a consequence of young workers working in sectors affected the most by the pandemic, such as retail or hospitality — both taking large financial hits due to being inessential services.
An important tool of youth integration into the labour market has always been part-time jobs, internships and short-term stints. Understandably so, most of these forms of labour have been suspended in the name of cost-cutting measures. When levels of general unemployment are high, youth suffers in competition with more experienced and better-established workers, and as such, there now exists an even higher degree of difficulty in retaining jobs and breaking into the labour market after finishing studies for all young workers-to-be across Europe.
The strongest tool in fighting youth unemployment in Europe has always been labour mobility ⎯ young people utilizing their EU benefits of free movement and pursuing careers throughout the EU-27. However, the pandemic halted all mobility in the spirit of safety, and lockdowns, shutdowns and other restrictions have created a new normal of digital workspaces and safe personal bubbles of existence. Furthermore, it created a new notion of safe labour, essential mobility, negatively affecting all young workers and their pursuit of labour, further showing that just labour mobility is not a sustainable approach for youth employment, especially in times of economic downturn.
Since the 2008 economic crisis, youth unemployment has been a key issue of every European Commission. Recognising the utmost importance of young workers in shaping Europe’s future, the term ‘future of work’ has been coined ⎯ an umbrella term uniting all action on the issue under the EU jurisdiction.
As far as actors are concerned, the entire economy must play a part in better integration of young workers, from budgetary committees on pan-European and national levels, through large corporations and small and medium enterprises, to the smallest of businesses in Europe. Only a united, functional economy can fully negate all the crises regarding youth employment.
A variety of European and national programmes have been launched to compensate for issues such as the skills gap. Erasmus+ is the most notable one, as it promotes higher education, worker mobility and life-long learning, all key measures in combating the skills gap.
Furthermore, the European Youth Pact fosters communication between businesses and training providers, developing and modernising existing training procedures to better fulfil the needs of the market. This campaign equipped about 5 million young workers with necessary skills to enter the labour market, facilitating cooperation between thousands of companies and organisations on national and pan-european level.
Another important institution in this matter, especially in the context of the Covid-19 crisis, is the Digital Skills and Jobs Coalition. Its mission statement is bringing together Member States’ governments, corporations, NGOs and education providers, to better address digital illiteracy among all age groups. This coalition consists of 25 national coalitions, working intensely on implementing solutions on regional and local levels, such as introducing digital skills in schools’ curricula.
There has been one large-scale pan-European programme aimed at tackling youth employment ⎯ the Youth Guarantee of 2013, facilitated by the alarming consequences of the 2008 crisis. It was, and still is today, a commitment to ensure all young workers are able to receive qualitative job offers, higher education opportunities, apprenticeships or traineeships. In seven years, more than 24 million young Europeans have been beneficiaries of the Guarantee. Data also suggest it helped drive down youth employment from almost 25% in 2013 to about 15% just before the pandemic.
In the context of the pandemic, the Guarantee has been reinforced by the European Commission. It now includes faster ways of reaching employment, access to digital training courses and boot camps, all in a customised approach. The Guarantee is said to acknowledge market volatilities and digital and green transitions, but the data obtained thus far is insufficient to determine whether it is successful in mitigating the effects of the pandemic.
The Youth Guarantee involves many different sub-programmes, funding and implementation mechanisms, aimed at tailoring opportunities to young people. The Youth Employment Initiative, a funding mechanism tied to the European Social Fund, is one of them. While helping more than 1.4 million young workers before the pandemic, it’s limited and largely committed resources proved insufficient for managing the consequences of the pandemic. The distribution of this funding is solely dependent on reaching the national 25% threshold of youth employment, and as such, allocating its resources is strenuous during the pandemic.
Another important European measure had been the European Alliance for Apprenticeships. Since its establishment in 2013, it has increased quality, supply and interest in apprenticeships through coordination of the education and the employment sectors. The approach of the Alliance is threefold, promising employers net profits from providing apprenticeships, creating a broader, more skilled young workforce and predicting more tax revenue and less welfare spending for the Member States. The Alliance has been reinforced similarly to the Youth Guarantee in the light of the Covid-19 crisis.
While these pan-European programmes have proved essential in combating youth unemployment in the past, they may prove insufficient in the context of the Covid-19 crisis. Their non-binding nature is making it incredibly difficult to efficiently help young European workers. The way forward might be in recognising the old framework (figure 2) stands on mobility, funding and coordination of national policies and recalibrating the Guarantee to include digital skills, combat the necessity for labour mobility and establish a fully European approach on the issue to better distribute European funds and prepare for the post-pandemic labour market in a united way.
Hey everyone! First and foremost, I’m really excited to soon get to meet and start working with you lot — but until then we still have some preparations to do! So for that reason I’d like for every single one of you to prepare a factsheet about our issue, sourcing it from both the Topic Overview and any other sources you see fit! In case you have any questions whatsoever, please write them into this google form — https://forms.gle/ghYjw9UkwfEHptfn6 — we can discuss them before the session starts or during the first calls we’ll have. Looking forward to seeing you all on the 24th!