By Dean Carroll
From NEETs – not in education, employment or training – to NEDs – non-educated delinquent – young people without opportunity have in recent years found themselves labelled simply as acronyms. But now, as youth unemployment spirals in the majority of European countries, an even more sinister acronym has been embraced by the new generation – educated or not. It is ‘YOLO’. Short for ‘you only live once’.
Fast becoming the motto of choice for young adults, who see little hope of doing a job they aspire to or which matches up to their qualifications, the ethos has proved dangerous for many. Through drinking games, risky pranks and wanton sexual behaviour many intelligent young people have either ended up in hospitals or police stations. At the more extreme end, those frozen out of education and employment completely – by limited life chances – turn to criminal gangs to offer them status, kicks and a sense of belonging.
In fact, the definition for YOLO on Wikipedia states that “one should enjoy life, even if that entails taking risks”. Indeed, why not take such gambles if your stake in civil society amounts to zero? Unlike their baby boomer parents, most young people cannot dream of owning their own home. They cannot hope to create a better life for their children. And they certainly cannot expect to deliver on their full potential in the workplace. Instead, they see a future of managed decline where wages – if you are lucky enough to have a job – retreat and living costs rise.
Not long ago, I attended a family party for an uncle who had reached his 70th birthday. Still fit, spritely and full of good cheer – his speech acknowledged that he “really was born at exactly the right time”. He highlighted how he had benefitted from free education, plentiful state healthcare, a generous pension and retirement age, and not having to toil in a manual job. He owned his own home by the time he was 30, due to a good job in the then booming aviation industry and the reasonable house prices that preceded the devastating property boom. It certainly was a golden age.
Compare that story to the tragedy of today when numerous graduates who have achieved a first at university, completed their masters degrees and then worked for free as interns for months on end only to find that they have to take a part-time job in the low-paid service sector. They are expected to live at their parents’ home in the childhood bedroom in which they grew up and be happy with their lot. ‘Do not be a snob, no job should be beneath you’, they are told by pious politicians who have already feathered their own nests and will never face the harsh reality of hopelessness that now presents itself to tomorrow’s generation. At the same time graduates and postgraduates are saddled with mountains of student debt built up to pay for an education, which they quite reasonably assumed would lead to some sort of career.
And so, it is difficult for our youth to find some positives to hold on to. Despite claims from complacent European Union leaders that the worst of the eurozone crisis is over, there are no credible green shoots of recovery. It may be that young people just have to get used to financial haircuts and economic hardship as a way of life. But it really will be a sad day if our children get to their 70th birthday celebrations only to say “I really was born at exactly the wrong time”. Policy-makers must act on youth unemployment and they must act quickly before a tipping point is reached.
Dean Carroll is editor of Policy Review