When Eurostat or the OECD release the latest figures on youth unemployment, we know what to expect: alarming newspaper headlines and commentaries full of rates and detailed figures, which provide a good picture of the macro changes but very little explanation of the realities of youth employment in Europe. While I share Steven Hill’s uneasiness about the overreliance on unemployment rates, my contribution to the ongoing debate is to discuss the current context of youth employment beyond youth unemployment rates.
The first missing element in the youth unemployment discussion is an overall understanding of the relationship between education and unemployment. Here, Steven Hill’s argument is: if you do not count people in education, the unemployment rate looks not so bad and having young people in education is actually positive. I agree in discussing the reality behind the scenes of youth unemployment rates, although the situation does not look as encouraging to me as Hill suggests.
Following the mass expansion of European higher education in the 2000s, there are now more Europeans in higher education than ever: according to EQUNET, about 48% of Europeans between 16 and 27 participate in HE, with peaks of participation in Latvia (75%) and Poland (71%) and lower rates in continental countries (28% in Belgium, 32% in Germany). This is not only a consequence of the attractiveness of HE during the rise of youth unemployment, but also an overall change that started well before the economic crisis. It is a change made to last: the high level of participation in HE will persist also in the UK, as suggested by the latest figures on applications after the rise in tuition fees. This educated labour force, competing for the few jobs available, is often trapped in ‘underemployment’: graduates employed in non-graduate jobs. The employment/unemployment dichotomy is clearly not telling us much about the destiny of those young people who do have a job, but not the one that they expected. As ‘Lost Generation?’ has effectively described, young people’s choice of embarking on HE is a surviving tool to compete in the labour market and not to climb down the ladder.
Training is the other side of the education debate. Here Hill’s suggestion that people in training should not be part of the count echoes the New Labour panacea of the ’90s: putting the NEETs into training and education to decrease the number of unemployed youth. While there the focus on training for NEETs did not lead to the expected positive effects, it had the misleading consequence of shifting the youth unemployment debate to individual causes (training, employability) rather than investing into structural changes in the labour market, as Keep and Mayhew suggest. In the current climate, it would be even more absurd to solve the problem of youth unemployment by proposing an ‘employability agenda’ to the most qualified cohort of young people that the European continent has ever had. In this framework, the creation of jobs endorsed here in SEJ does appear as the only way to escape from the paradoxical trap of qualified unemployment.
The other evident limit of relying heavily on youth employment rates is depicting a reality of labour market transitions that does not exist anymore, such as the assumption of the linear path from education to the labour market. Current transitions are better described as non-linear or ‘yo-yo transitions’; they are characterised by mutual exchanges and overlaps between education and the labour market and are hard to track. For example, in HE we have students who do work while enrolled in higher education. The latest data from Eurostudent show a great diversity of self-earned income of students, but also suggest the relevance of earning money by yourself during HE: the rate of self-earned income over total income goes from 67% in the Czech Republic, 50% in Finland and Norway, to 24% in the Netherlands. Rather than starting their labour market career from zero, many European students might stick with the job sector that supported them financially during HE.
Unemployment rates are often interpreted without reflecting the current reality of youth transitions. Also, the overreliance on youth unemployment rates distracts us from more salient topics, such as precarious work, free internships and short-term jobs. It might also signal another limit of current progressive talk: the overreliance on statistical measures and the lack of a critical view on the overall context.