Written by Etienne Bassot,
According to Eurostat data, there are currently 88.6 million young Europeans between 15 and 29 years old. They constitute 17.4 % of the total population, a slow but steady decline from 19.6 % (96.6 million) in 2006. While women are a majority in the overall population, the reverse is true in this age bracket. Some 66 % of young people live with their parents, leaving on average at the age of 26. Some 28.8 % are at risk of poverty or social exclusion.
Considering the upper age bracket of 25 to 29-year olds, in 2016, 37.2 % had attained tertiary level education, 46.8 % upper or post-secondary education and 15.9 % lower secondary education or less. The employment rate was 73.2 %, but only 54 % of those with the lowest educational level were employed. While almost 91 % claimed to be in good or very good health, there was a difference of more than 10 % between the lowest income quintile (83.7 %) and the highest (94.3 %).
Youth policy in the EU is a competence of the Member States. Nevertheless, to assist them, the EU has adopted a nine-year Youth Strategy that will run until the end of 2018. It aims to increase opportunities for all young people and to encourage them to participate actively in society. Its actions are concentrated in the fields of education and training, employment and entrepreneurship, health and wellbeing, participation, voluntary activities, social inclusion, youth and the world, creativity and culture. The European Commission dedicated 2017 to an exercise of stock-taking and consultation regarding these actions.
During this exercise, youth representatives indicated the desirability of extending student and youth mobility to groups of young people who have in practice been socially excluded up to now. Greater inclusion is also one of the concerns of policy discussions within the European Higher Education Area, an initiative aimed at improved mobility through reforming higher education systems. Youth representatives have further highlighted the importance of engaging young people in civic issues and in the democratic process in a meaningful way. They have drawn attention to the importance of recognising the knowledge and skills developed outside the formal education system, and also of offering access to stable work and decent housing, which still elude a significant number. On a positive note, the structured dialogue, a regular exercise that brings together young people and high-level policy-makers, was described by participants as inspiring and unique.
In 2018, a new Youth Strategy for 2019-2027 will be established. Stakeholders have pointed out that, to succeed, it needs to be transversal and closely aligned with other policy fields and funding sources. They have indicated the importance of improved participation by a wider spectrum of authorities, young people and youth-workers in designing, implementing and monitoring the strategy. The objectives of Erasmus+, the EU funding programme for education, youth and sport and the Youth Strategy need also to be linked more clearly.
In his State of the Union speech on 14 September 2016, the Commission President, Jean-Claude Junker, announced another youth-oriented initiative, the European Solidarity Corps, which aims to enrol 100 000 young people in solidarity projects by the end of 2020. The Council adopted its general approach on the Commission’s proposal for a legislative framework on the above initiative in November 2017. The European Parliament is expected to adopt its position in early 2018. In a resolution on the corps, the Parliament insisted on clear definitions, avoidance of negative impacts on existing programmes and integration within a broader volunteering strategy. The Commission envisages the adoption of the legal framework in early 2018.
Discussions on the Youth Strategy and the European Solidarity Corps are backed by a growing sense among policy-makers that groups of young people are hindered from participating constructively. Both initiatives thus adhere to the Paris declaration of 2015 that called on policy-makers to focus their efforts on fighting inequalities, racism and discrimination, and to encourage citizenship education that develops young people’s media literacy and critical thinking. This was largely in response to news of young people leaving Europe to join terrorist groups fighting in Syria and the 2015terrorist attacks. Consequently, interest grew in building an understanding of how social media and the internet are used to lure young people, and later, to propagate what became widely referred to as fake news.
Social situations with an impact on the whole population can hit young people in specific ways. For instance, young people are more exposed to periodic economic crises. Difficult transitions from education to work also heighten the risks of exclusion. Furthermore, although work-based learning is useful to address skills mismatches, there is also the risk that tools such as internships are misused to replace real jobs. Unpaid work experience also shifts the costs of skills acquisitions onto individuals, creating a labour market barrier for those who lack the financial means to support themselves. To provide support to young people who are not in employment, training or education, or are long-term unemployed, the EU adopted the Youth Employment Initiative in 2012 and the Youth Guarantee in 2013.
Young people are also exposed to other forms of inequality and discrimination, often linked with specific identities. For instance, while progress has been made in making education more accessible to the young disabled, barriers persist. At EU level, measures are now being put in place to open up learning mobility to this and other disadvantaged groups. Other areas, such as access to work, culture and sport, are still lagging behind.
Data indicate that foreign-born and second-generation young people are at greater risk of poverty, are more likely to leave school early and to be out of employment, education or training, and are less likely to have mastered basic skills (literacy, maths and science) by the age of 15. This is also linked to parents’ income and education level. However, practices such as good (and continuing) teacher training on intercultural education, avoiding early selection and learning in both native and host-country languages, seem to make a difference.
Gender influences educational outcomes as well. Boys from disadvantaged socio-economic backgrounds are more likely to leave school early and obtain weaker results. Girls are more likely to take up a first degree, but they are still under-represented in the fields of science, technology, engineering and maths. Later, men are more likely to carry out doctoral studies, to find work once they leave education and to earn higher salaries.
At the same time, recognition that gender identity is not simply binary is still uneven in Member States, as a result of which LGTBI youth are still exposed to discrimination. While the principle of equality and the prohibition of discrimination on the basis of sexual identity are embedded in EU legislation, research indicates that homophobia and bullying in schools are still a problem. EU funds have served to finance programmes that challenge attitudes in schools and local communities as well as share good practices internationally.
Youth will be very high on the EU agenda in 2018, with the renewal of the Youth Strategy, the establishment of a legal basis for the European Solidarity Corps, the upcoming meeting of the Bologna Process stakeholders in Paris and the campaign to increase funding for Erasmus+ tenfold in the run-up to the discussions on the next multiannual financial framework negotiations, which start in earnest in May.
Read the complete in-depth analysis on ‘Ten issues to watch in 2018‘ on the Think Tank pages of the European Parliament.