Europe Is Facing a Youth Unemployment Crisis

The coronavirus pandemic has caused unemployment to skyrocket across Europe, and young people are among the most likely to lose out.
September 15, 2020, 12:28pm
unemployment
Collage: Marta Parszeniew

A UK jobs website recently revealed that over 4,000 people had applied for an entry level job at a law firm, over 3,000 to become an HR assistant and nearly 3,000 to be a warehouse worker in Northumberland.

Stories of job adverts being deluged with thousands of applications are becoming commonplace. Across Europe, the coronavirus pandemic is causing unemployment to rise, with the young being hit disproportionally hard, just as in the last financial crisis.

The International Labour Organisation (ILO) has warned the pandemic is having a “devastating and disproportionate” impact on youth employment, with young people finding it difficult to continue training and education, move between jobs and even start work. This could lead to the emergence of a “lockdown generation”, always disadvantaged as a result of the 2020 pandemic, unless urgent action is taken now, according to the ILO.

In the UK, nearly 700,000 people have lost their jobs so far as a result of the pandemic, and the number looks set to grow as the government ends its furlough scheme at the end of October.

Youth unemployment grew significantly in some European countries during the global financial crisis of 2007-2008, and in the recession that followed. Those hit hardest were in the poorer countries on the periphery of the European Union (EU), such as Greece, Spain and Portugal. These countries have once again seen large rises in youth unemployment since the start of the pandemic. Greece saw a surge from 31.7 percent in March to 39.3 percent in June, while Spain and Portugal had similar increases, from 33.9 percent to 41.7 percent and 20.6 percent to 27.4 percent, respectively.

However, the virus has not discriminated against just the historically poorer countries. Sweden, which never implemented a full lockdown – with the Daily Mail claiming it “got the last laugh on coronavirus” – has seen youth unemployment rocket from 19.6 percent to 28.8 percent.

Maja Gustafsson, researcher for the Resolution Foundation, told VICE News: “In any crisis, youth are particularly affected because they tend to have weaker ties with the labour market. They've been working for shorter lengths of time and they need a lot of experience to get ahead. When people don't have that there, and the crisis hits, they are the most likely to have to go.”

Gustafsson notes that the pandemic caused the near total shutdown of the retail and hospitality industries – two sectors that employ lots of young people at the start of their working lives.

When lockdown measures were introduced, they led to pubs, bars and restaurants across Europe closing abruptly upon the order of respective states. Kostas*, 28, who was working as a waiter at a tavern in the centre of Athens, knew it would be closed by the lockdown, but was never told anything by his boss. One day, he happened to be walking past and bumped into his employer, who told him he had lost his job.

Of the EU’s 27 states, only four have not seen youth unemployment rise. The dial in Austria barely moved, while Germany, Malta and Bulgaria all actually saw it fall over the same time period. Germany has what the International Monetary Fund described as the “gold standard” of furlough schemes, and has recently extended it to last for a total of 24 months.

Youth unemployment inequality across Europe is also being exacerbated by the pandemic, according to Lukasz Krebel, assistant researcher for the New Economics Foundation.

“This could make those differences even worse,” Krebel explained. “It depends on the level of support that the government can offer. Germany obviously had a very large stimulus and government investment in their scheme because the country has done economically very well before the crisis. They could afford a lot of levels of support to young people, as well as the rest of the population.

“The countries that already struggled before the crisis, like Greece and Spain – which clearly hadn't found a way to solve their youth unemployment crisis before – are likely to struggle even more. This underlines the need for active support for young people by the governments, borrowing more as necessary to tackle the crisis head-on.”

The situation in the UK is also getting worse. There were 5 million people temporarily away from work at the end of July, including those being supported by the furlough scheme. When the furlough scheme ends, many of these workers could find themselves joining the millions of people already struggling to live on Universal Credit. This has led to calls for the government to extend the furlough scheme to delay the impending catastrophe.

Ricky, a 33-year-old part time PhD student from south London, worked as a part time chef in a central London pub before the pandemic hit. Ricky said: “Going into the hospitality industry seemed like the best idea to get a secure job, right? Practically the only way I'm going to secure an income while I do my studies. Then the pandemic happens, nobody really knows what's going to happen – then the industry gets closed down entirely.”

The casualisation of the hospitality industry has meant that when the industry closed down, Ricky found himself unable to access any furlough scheme, and had to start claiming Universal Credit.

The pub Ricky was working in was able to put bar staff on furlough, but wasn’t responsible for the four staff working in the kitchen, including Ricky, as it had sub-contracted that space. Ricky was self-employed, but he’d only become self-employed in the last tax year, so wasn’t eligible for any of the government support for freelancers and fell through the cracks.

The kitchen has now reopened, but there are only enough customers going to the pub to allow one of the four previous staff to return to work.

For Ricky and millions of others across Europe, it looks like the issue of youth unemployment will be a reality for many months to come.

*Workers names have been changed to protect their identities.

@jdpoulter