Youth unemployment and public services

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Everyone talks about youth employment as a major issue for European politics. In fact this has been the case for a long time; already in the first quarter of 2011, the employment rate for the young dropped to the lowest level ever recorded in the EU: 32.9%. Now in early 2014 the unemployment rate has reached 22.8% in the European Union and over 23% in the Eurozone. The public concerns of politicians at European and national level are simply not being backed up by concrete solutions.

Figures published by the Spanish Government during its 2010 presidency showed that among the central civil service, only 1.5% of female employees and 1.2% of male workers were aged under 30. Overall (including in local and regional administrations), the figure was 3.1% in 2011. At the same time the UK government showed that in 1991, 30% of civil servants were aged under 30, but by the end of March 2011, this had fallen to 12%. In UK local government, only 5.9% of the workforce was aged under 25 in 2010.

The trend has continued over the last five years. Of particular concern for public services, and in particular for public administration, is the failure of any EU country to employ a level of young workers in public administration that is proportionate to the number of young people in the economy as a whole. Young people are left to turn to their entrepreneurial skills, but do we want self-employed teachers, fire-fighters or tax inspectors? The European proposals to solve youth unemployment seem to suggest that we do.

Access to public service jobs in Spain, for instance, is via opsiciones – an exam system, but there is a dramatically reduced level of hiring. Very few young workers are now employed in the public services. Elsewhere in the economy, there are reduced employment rights being imposed. Although recent graduates are being offered so-called training posts, this is simply work on reduced pay.

What are the solutions?

Few of the initiatives aimed at youth are expressed through public employment (or propose that the government becomes the employer). A World Bank study published in 2007 found that one of the key strategies deployed by individual states in the USA and Canada to combat youth unemployment was direct employment, although it had not been used in Europe at all. The European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions calculates that moving just 10% of Europe’s NEETs into work would save (on a conservative estimate) €10 billion per year of public expenditure.

This suggests that turning back towards the employment of young people would represent good value for money for the state. This makes more sense than the OECD’s suggestion regarding the ageing of government workforces, that “the expected wave of retirements could provide an opportunity for governments to restructure their workforce by decreasing employment levels”. The point is that austerity and fiscal discipline (usually self-imposed) is becoming a barrier to job creation in the public sector in Europe.

If Europe’s public administrations simply employed the same proportion of under-25 year olds now as they did at the end of 2008 (when it was already low in comparison with the rest of the economy), over 100,000 more of Europe’s young would currently have a job. Had employment of the young stayed at the same level numerically, there would be 165,000 fewer unemployed young Europeans. It is telling that the one aspect of youth employment which is under the direct control of Europe’s governments is the one showing such poor performance. Europe’s youth could reasonably conclude that governments’ expressions of concern are hollow.

To this end, trade unions and young workers must engage in a campaign to tackle precarious work and create quality employment for young people – a campaign that needs to examine the relationship between public spending cuts and the availability of entry-level jobs for the young in public services. The extent of poverty in work among young workers needs to be addressed in policy development, and through EU-level social dialogue, perhaps as an element of broader responses to age discrimination. If these things do not happen, the European Social model as it has been defined will have no meaning for millions of young people. The time to act is now!

More information

EPSU: Pablo Sanchez +32 (0)474 62 66 33 or

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