South Africa could end up like Zimbabwe. Hans-Joachim Löwer

Home is where the hardship is

Five years after the outbreak of the European debt crisis, youth unemployment shows no signs of abating. Unless politicians find a remedy, a whole generation will be forced into exodus. A portrait.

Five and a half million people, roughly the population size of Denmark – that is the number of Europe’s unemployed youth, desperately struggling to find work. “Generation Baby Losers” is only one of the many names given to the generation of people aged 16-25 who are among those hit worst by Europe’s debt crisis and the resulting austerity measures. With over 50% of youth unemployed in both Spain and Greece, 41 percent in Italy, and 36 percent in Portugal, many young Southern Europeans, especially well-educated ones, are left with a tough choice: facing a jobless future at home, or leaving everything behind to find work abroad.

Alfredo opted for the second. “In my case, it was both personal matters and the fact that I have been unemployed since 2012.” For the young Spaniard, it became clear that there wasn’t much of a future for him in his home country and so he, just like many of his fellow countrymen and -women, decided to move to Berlin – the capital of Europe’s economic powerhouse. “Many of my friends are struggling to find a job in Spain,” he says; “others, like me, left to find work abroad”. Although Berlin’s 11.7 percent unemployment level is well above Germany’s national average, it is still very low by Spanish standards. “Berlin is a good place for me, it’s cheap and it’s easier to make ends meet, although the place is getting crowded and it doesn’t offer very high salaries,” Alfredo explains.

A generation of economic refugees

Berlin has witnessed a real influx of crisis migrants over the past years. German language schools in Madrid or Athens are packed with young people, mostly highly qualified, willing to learn the language to increase their chances of finding a job in Germany. A survey showed that 58% of Greece’s engineering students are deeply worried about their future, while forecasts reveal that, by 2020, 120,000 engineering jobs may remain vacant in Germany due to retirement. The same goes for other sectors. So it makes ample sense to young Southern Europeans to seek jobs in thriving economies abroad.

Petros, a young Greek who holds a degree in economics, is moving to London to do a master’s degree but hopes that he can find a job and build a future for himself in the UK. “The situation in Greece is really bad, especially for people who have studied for years,” Petros says. “My expectations are quite low because I live in poor conditions right now, but I’ll do my best to achieve my goals,” he adds.

Débora, from Portugal, also lives in London and has noticed a sharp increase in new arrivals from her home country. “There is a mailing list of Portuguese expats in London which has grown massively over the past years. A lot of the mails are about jobs and accommodation.” While Débora contemplates staying in London, her crisis-ridden home country is experiencing the largest migration wave in its history, with Portuguese people fleeing austerity and unemployment and seeking new opportunities in Europe’s north or in countries with booming economies, such as Brazil.

My grandfather recently pointed to the irony that while his generation was a generation of European war refugees, my generation is one of European economic refugees. In the light of all this evidence, I found it difficult to disagree. For many young Europeans, the European dream and the European privileges their parents have enjoyed have come to be nothing more than fairy dust. Despair is rising and so is the number of young people turning towards populists of all colors who proclaim that they hold the key to a better future. Europe’s mainstream political parties must therefore recognize that their struggle against the rising levels of populism must also be a fight against the rising levels of youth unemployment. As Jean-Claude Juncker, the Conservatives’ front-runner for the upcoming European elections, emphasized during an interview with this magazine: “We must recognize that the EU has 29 member states. The 29th state comprises those citizens that were driven out of work and feel uncared for.”

Sacrificing a whole generation

Of course, such a “brain drain” of well-educated people could have serious repercussions for Southern European countries. After all, how can you build a better future without inspiring and brilliant young minds to lay down the foundation? “Seeing my country go through such a tough period makes me feel guilty, as though I abandoned it,” explains Débora. “I feel that I want to go back and put some of the things I’ve learned here into practice – particularly in helping to change the Portuguese mentality from ‘easy money’ to proactive action, entrepreneurship and giving value to young people and their ideas, basically getting on with things!” Alfredo and Petros think similarly. “Some well-educated Spaniards will go back if the situation in Spain improves. I will also go back, I miss my country a lot, but I simply don’t know if or when the situation will pick up,” Alfredo says.

Many have been left with no other choice than to leave their home country, and even if the situation improves, they will still be the ones suffering from the after-effects. “Unfortunately, I think change will come the uneasy way and I am afraid that a generation, our generation, will be sacrificed for it,” Petros says. “I don’t have any plans. I have seen how little it means to have a plan for life,” Alfredo argues. “You can, of course, hope for the best, but having long-term plans can be very frustrating,” he adds. Unfortunately, it seems that many of the “Baby Losers” have already lost the game before they got the chance to play it.

Read more in this debate: Max Tholl, Daan Welling, Dessislava Kirova .

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