Europe's Lost Generation
While many economic experts have focused on the Greek debt crisis and the future
by Paul Kieffer
Hundreds of young Spaniards began a three-week protest in mid-May at Madrid's Puerta del Sol plaza. With a play on the words of U.S. President Barack Obama’s election campaign slogan, the young protestors proclaimed, "Yes, we camp!"
The city-center campout was a demonstration against high unemployment among Spanish youth and the Spanish government's response in the last two years to the worldwide financial crisis. More than 45 percent of job-seeking Spaniards under the age of 25 are unemployed, the highest level of unemployment among young people anywhere in the European Union. In fact, according to United Nations statistics, the average level of youth unemployment throughout the rest of the world is about 13 percent – Spain's being more than triple that. It is no wonder that the International Monetary Fund (IMF) has characterized Spain's young unemployed as the "lost generation."
The protest in Madrid served notice on Spain's political leaders and union representatives that frustration among Spanish youth is slowly turning to anger. Prior to last month's demonstration, things had been quiet in the country's cities for months despite high unemployment. Young job seekers in Spain are challenged by the reluctance of employers to offer them regular employment with the accompanying benefits that their colleagues with seniority enjoy. Instead, they are given short-term contracts without severance benefits, making them the first ones to be laid off in any economic downturn.
Spain's government can offer little hope of relief or improvement for the hordes of young unemployed Spaniards. The Spanish economy is still suffering the after-effects of its housing industry having gone from boom to bust. The country's own debt crisis means billions of euros in budget cuts to position itself for any emergency loans that might be needed in the future from other eurozone members and the IMF.
The demonstration in Madrid prompted similar protests not just in other Spanish cities, but in other EU countries as well. What impact might this ultimately have?
Europe's youth unemployment problem
While Spain holds the dubious record of the highest youth unemployment rate in Europe, the "lost generation" of unemployed youth is expanding throughout the Continent. Currently, 19 of 27 European Union members have a youth unemployment rate exceeding 20 percent. There are only three EU countries where the youth unemployment rate is less than 10 percent: Germany, Austria and the Netherlands. In other words, youth unemployment is not only a problem for EU countries viewed as weak economically, like Greece, Lithuania and Latvia, but even for industrialized nations like France and Italy.
It's only a matter of time before Europe will pay dearly for the lost generation's missing contribution to the European economy. Without regular income these young people will not contribute as consumers to the normal economic cycle. With no income they will not be paying taxes and helping to reduce their country's fiscal problems, and they will be a drain on unemployment and welfare funds instead of contributing to them through their earnings.
Then there is also the aspect of mental and emotional well-being for those who experience long-term unemployment or fear losing their jobs. According to Dr. Matthijs Muijen of the United Nations World Health Organization in an interview with Britain's Public Service Review: "Employment is a very powerful predictor of depression and anxiety. Unemployment poses the risk of poverty and leads to individuals losing social connections and feeling marginalised. At the peak of the economic crisis, people were very fearful, which led to a change in behaviour; they were loathe to take sick days and were going into work even if they were ill" (June 13, 2011).
Depression and anxiety are not the only reactions to unemployment. When young French protestors gathered in May at the Place de la Bastille in Paris to sympathize with Spanish youth demonstrating in Madrid, anger and frustration were evident, prompting Süddeutsche Zeitung (Germany's largest national subscription newspaper) to wonder whether the recent angry protests in North Africa had boiled over into Europe. "Our goal is a world revolution," was how one of the French demonstrators described the protest (May 31, 2011). Calling themselves the "Indignant Citizens," their protest was directed against the fruits of the Western capitalist system.
Using social media like Facebook and other websites, the "Indignant Citizens" quickly organized similar demonstrations in Lisbon, Budapest, Athens and Berlin. The brunt of their wrath was directed at budget cuts and a perceived unfair distribution of wealth. French foreign minister Alain Juppé admitted that the "unbridled greed of the rich" and the growing needs of the poor were fueling the perception of injustice (ibid.).
Unfortunately, it seems that European and world economists have little hope of reducing Europe's growing army of the young unemployed. A New York Times article by Nobel Prize–winning economist Paul Krugman quotes the secretary general of the 34-nation Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) as stating, "The room for macroeconomic policies to address these complex challenges is largely exhausted" (May 29, 2011). Krugman himself says: "On both sides of the Atlantic, a consensus has emerged among movers and shakers that nothing can or should be done about jobs. Instead of a determination to do something about the ongoing suffering and economic waste, one sees a proliferation of excuses for inaction, garbed in the language of wisdom and responsibility" (ibid.).
The potential for radical change
So far Greece is the only country where recent protests over unemployment and austerity measures have turned violent. A report from the German Press Agency (Deutsche Presse-Agentur) described the scene in Athens at the beginning of June:
"Resistance is also coming from the 'Indignant Citizens,' a protest movement organized on the Internet. It has occupied Athens' main square in front of parliament every evening for almost the last two weeks, demanding a type of 'direct democracy.' Members of parliament are called 'thieves and traitors' and are spat upon, called names and on occasion become the target for stone-throwers. The crowd is mixed, and the mixture is highly explosive. The anti-system group dominates part of the square, along with unemployed people and their families, members of the political opposition, disappointed socialists, monarchists, housewives who bang on their pots, students and university graduates who have no hope of finding a job. The extreme right is also represented, occupying a corner of the square right in front of parliament. There are fears that the slightest incident could ignite an explosion" (June 5, 2011, translation ours).
The head of the Greek Orthodox Church, Archbishop Ieronymos, said the financial crisis provided Greece an opportunity for change but not, he warned, "that we destroy ourselves" (Kathimerini, June 5, 2011).
The "Indignant Citizens" movement of recent weeks has demanded not just an end to high unemployment, but also an overhaul of the European political system, which is viewed as incapable of solving current problems.
Germany's experience with right-wing extremism offers an interesting insight into the attractiveness of fringe movements. In recent years Germany's three extreme right-wing political parties have had their biggest electoral successes in areas where unemployment is well above the national average. A study conducted two years ago by the Department for Medical Psychology and Sociology at the University of Leipzig concluded that unemployment was a motivating factor for male voters in deciding to vote for one of the three parties. Of those surveyed, one third who voted for an extreme right-wing party were unemployed, and other voters listed fear of losing their job as a reason for choosing a right-wing party. The survey also revealed that the majority of respondents who voted for right-wing parties were from low-income households.
With experts predicting that Europe's unemployment malaise will last for years, the potential is very real that disaffected youth may embrace alternative solutions rooted in political extremism that offer radical change in a crisis situation.
Where is this headed?
Will history repeat itself? Will Weimar be the model for Europe? The last years of Germany's post–World War I Weimar Republic were plagued by high unemployment. When unemployment reached about 35 percent, Germany got a new chancellor who promised to solve the unemployment problem. His name was Adolf Hitler.
While disturbing to contemplate, this should come as no surprise to students of Bible prophecy, who await the coming rise of a new dictatorship in Europe following a long tradition. This leader and his empire, both referred to in the book of Revelation as "the beast," will plunge the world into its darkest period. (For much more on this, see the March-April 2010 issue of "The Good News" magazine.
But that's not the end. Thankfully, evil will be vanquished, the darkness will be lifted, and the problems of this age will be solved the right way. The Bible shows that a time is coming when the youth of all nations – and older folks too, for that matter – will not have to deal with the uncertainties of today's world. Jesus Christ has promised to return to restore equity and justice so that all, starting with the people of Israel, may live in peace and enjoy the security of homes and long-term employment. I recommend the free booklets You Can Understand Bible Prophecy and The Book of Revelation Unveiled, both available free of charge upon request.
• Paul Kieffer, June 29, 2011