Rising grievances among the European youth and its consequences

By Jennifer Bergman
Europe Analyst

Towards the end of my university years I, as I am sure everyone else does, reflected a lot about my entrance into the job market. During this period, I remember feeling sorry for those who graduated into the 2008-2009 recession, then came 2020 and I graduated into a global pandemic and economic crisis. Although I have been incredibly lucky, many people have not. As younger millennials and Generation Z are starting to embark on the job market, they are met with the same realisation that older millennials have already come to; the future that they have been sold as achievable, with things like a stable job and home-ownership, is increasingly harder to reach. These unmet expectations contribute to a growth in discontent and grievances, which can have long-term consequences for the political fabric and security of Europe.

The 21st century has seen recurring economic crises. In the early 2000s, the dot-com bubble burst; in 2008, the world entered a recession when the US housing market crashed causing ripples throughout the global financial system; and most recently, the 2020 pandemic forced the industries of the world to shut down, travel to stop and millions to lose their jobs. Overall, these economic shocks are accelerating the growth of a socio-economic divide in Europe, even in traditionally equal societies like Sweden. The OECD warns that this is raising the social barriers between groups and may generate a perception of inequality, which can potentially fuel political instability (OECD, 2017). In addition to the economic challenges, the threat of climate change is constantly looming, a threat that has become more visible in recent years with extreme weather events affecting the lives of millions. On a smaller scale, countries are experiencing conservative backsliding in terms of civil rights with police brutality being a frequent element on the news and reproductive rights coming under attack. Together, these events create a world where the future is looking increasingly bleak and individuals’ prospects for a comfortable life diminish.

The consequences of the events outlined above are, of course, not isolated to the youth. However, they have taken place during a critical juncture in this group’s life, the period where they finish their studies to enter the job market and adulthood. Youth unemployment has long been a major issue in Europe and during Covid, it increased from 15% to over 17% in the first two quarters of 2020 (Kahn, 2020). However, the issue is not confined to unemployment, even among those who manage to land a job, grievances are growing. Young people on the job market are told that if they just work hard they will get to a place of financial security, not realising that they are working in a system that is not constructed for them to succeed. In her widely read article, Anne Helen Petersen writes about the effect this is having on millennials, labelling them the ‘burnout generation’. She outlines how the pressures put on young people to succeed forces them to accept poor treatment and stretch themselves increasingly thinner to get ahead. This accumulates in a burned-out generation, unable to muster the energy to finish everyday tasks like doing laundry or grocery shopping (Petersen, 2019).

These events and the feeling of striving for something that you cannot reach are not in themselves what contributes to rising grievances among youth; rather it is governments’ handling, or lack thereof, of the situation. In his study on Spain and Portugal, Torcal (2014) found that the economic crisis did not reduce trust in state institutions; instead, it was because the institutions that were supposed to represent the youth were not responsive to their demands or concerns. Especially during times of crises, demands and concerns arise, and in these instances, if you live in a democracy you expect the people that you elect to represent you and work to make your life better. Inevitably, if this is not the case, trust in those institutions will reduce. This lack of trust acts as the fuel for grievances.

The rising grievances has both individual and societal long-term consequences. As mentioned above, on an individual level, this discontent and frustration can lead to burnout. In addition to this, studies have found that young people feel excluded during economic crises and if they are unemployed, they look at the future less optimistically. It also found that those who are unemployed when young can earn significantly less over their timeline, as well as moving away from home and starting families of their own later (Peter, 2016; Wolff, 2020). These results show that economic shocks during a period when the youth is entering adulthood can have long-lasting consequences.

On a wider level, economic grievances can turn into political ones. At the extreme side of the spectrum, the lack of addressing youth grievances in a country is a cause of conflict. In her study, Sika (2020) looks at six MENA countries and outlines how socio-economic grievances morphs into political grievances and in light of unmet expectations the likelihood of street mobilisation increases. European nations have not yet seen a domino effect of protests against government rule as the ones in the MENA region experienced during the Arab spring, however, France experienced similar protests against the government in 2018 (Edelman, 2020). There have also been several large-scale protests on specific issues such as the 2019 climate protests and 2020 Black Lives Matter protests. In addition to this, European nations are experiencing a gradual movement of young people towards populism and the political right because of a lack of economic prospects (Algan et al 2017; Zagórski, Rama & Cordero, 2019).

In a world that places hope on younger generations to change the world, protecting the optimism and willingness of them to do so is crucial. Right now, the European youth is feeling increasingly discontent and losing trust in the official institutions that are meant to represent them. This article has outlined how the effects of this are not limited to individuals but can have long-term consequences in rising support for populist and far-right parties or, in extreme cases, civil unrest. While there has been progress and younger voices are given a platform in national and transnational politics, gestures like these are merely symbolic unless they are coupled with policies that can ensure that the needs and demands of young people are met in a way that promotes a comfortable future.  

References:

Algan, Yann; Guriev, Sergei; Papaioannou, Elias & Passari, Evgenia (2017) “The European Trust Crisis and the Rise of Populism”, Brookings Papers on Economic Activity, 2017(2): 309-400.

Edelman, Richard (2020) “20 Years of Trust: Introduction”, Edelman, accessed at https://www.edelman.com/20yearsoftrust/ 21 September 2021.

Förster, Michael; Llena Nozal, Ana & Thévenot, Céline (2017) “Understanding the socio-economic divide in Europe” Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development―COPE Centre for Opportunity and Equality.

Kahn, Michael (2020) “Coronavirus ‘Class of 2020’: Europe’s Lost Generation?” Reuters, July 9, accessed at https://www.reuters.com/article/us-health-coronavirus-unemployment-youth/coronavirus-class-of-2020-europes-lost-generation-idUKKBN24A0LN?edition-redirect=uk September 21 2021.

Peter, Laurence (2016) “Are Europe’s Young People Fed up with the EU?” BBC, October 21, accessed at https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-37727156 September 21 2021.

Petersen, Anne Helen (2019) “How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation”, Buzzfeed News, January 5, accessed at https://www.buzzfeednews.com/article/annehelenpetersen/millennials-burnout-generation-debt-work 21 September 2021.

Sika, Nadine (2020) “Youth Socio-economic and Political Grievances: Bringing the ‘Political’ back into Understanding Contestation in the MENA”, Mediterranean Politics, 26(3): 330-348. 

Wolff, Guntram (2020) “Europe Can’t Afford to Lose another Generation to Youth Employment”, The Guardian, November 11, accessed at https://www.theguardian.com/world/commentisfree/2020/nov/11/europe-cant-afford-to-lose-another-generation-to-youth-unemployment September 21 2021.

Zagórski, Piotr; Rama, Jose & Cordero, Guillermo (2019) “Young and Temporary: Youth Employment Insecurity and Support for Right-Wing Populist Parties in Europe”, Government and Opposition, 56(3): 405-426.

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