Over the last ten years, EU investment in youth initiatives has been substantial but has the end result been the rise in populism while middle income earners and older generations feel neglected and left out of the union? This was a discussion between a number of the team and so we decided to what we do best and put our thoughts into writing. There were two opposing theories on this and here we look at one side by Yannis Karamitsios who argues that there is always a huge advantages for investment in the youth. This is two part debate and you can read an alternative theory on this by Brian Milne also published .
Ken Sweeney raised a piece with a number of us that was written for the European Parliament titled ‘What is the European Youth Event (EYE2018)?’ This was a was a press report on an event which took place on 1-2 June 2018 in the European Parliament’s seat in Strasbourg. The event which is an annual get together of youth brought more than 8,000 young people from all over Europe together to come up with ideas for the future of Europe which they discussed with European decision makers. Ken raised the question as to why such an event is exclusive to youth. He suggested the EU needs to connect with middle income earners who saved the EU during the financial crisis in 2009. Fellow writer Brian Milne supported Ken’s position and presents his argumentation in a separate text published in the website. I support the opposite view, which I would like to explain here.
Some challenges of social policy
A society’s wealth is the quality of its people. Yes, many other factors matter too: natural resources, production models, geographical location or foreign relations – just to name a few. But its main asset is the people. This is why terms like ‘human capital, ‘human resources’ or ‘life-long education’ have become so important in modern political and economic vocabulary.
Of course, not all people play the same role in a society’s progress. Its classification into many different groups is endless: the children, the youth, the women, the old, the disabled, the entrepreneurs, the poor, the middle-class, the blue collar workers, the white collar workers, the intellectuals, the artists, the civil servants. The list can continue forever. Each of those groups contributes something to the society and has also certain needs to be served by it. One of the main challenges of social policy is to find the right tools and tailor them to the needs of each one of them. A further challenge is to identify the groups that could offer a higher added value to the entire social body and invest more public resources on particular aspects of their activities.
I would like to make the case in favour of investing particular public resources in the youth, compared to other group ages. I would build my argumentation on the basis of three main premises: the notion of long-term investment; youth’s vulnerability; and social cohesion.
There are many different definitions of ‘youth’. For the purpose of this text, I would select the age range of 15-30.
Youth as a social long-term investment
My basic position might sound simplistic, but I see it as common sense argument: youth is a society’s longest possible investment that typically lasts four or more decades. One euro spent on youth today should pay back to the society multiple more euros over the many years that follow. This is not the case with middle or older ages, whose productive years expire rather soon.
Investing in the education, skills and full employment of young people as early as possible in their lives, would improve future productivity and economic returns. Providing access to quality education to young people would be the foundation in creating a skilled workforce that would steer a country to innovative growth and sustainable development. This is the case both in developed as well as in developing countries. In developing countries, for instance, access to reproductive education minimises adolescent pregnancies and child marriage, leading to healthier birth outcomes, more stable families and stronger GDP growth. By educating the youth on innovative agricultural techniques or 3D printing, helps them achieving immediate financial solutions for themselves, their families and close society.
Leaving economic aspects aside, we also need to note that young people are more receptive than the older ages to ideas, cultures and attitudes. I would like to start with my personal example. Having spent my twenties in the decade of 1990s, I am still influenced by the optimism and world view of that decade. The post-communist cosmopolitan spirit of that time, with a vision of a more liberal and globalised world, remains my personal guide in my late forties. This is something that cannot change anymore. I still see politicians like Bill Clinton, or -in the Greek case- Konstantinos Simitis as the mainstream models of visionary and responsible leaders. I am still in denial of figures like Trump or events like Brexit – I dismiss them as temporary deviation from normality. They are not real, they cannot be the standard case. This is the “normality” that was shaped during my young years and will most probably guide me forever.
I would also like to mention the example of some of my distant relatives who spent their youth in the communist states of east Europe. Although they were glad to see the fall of those regimes, their way of thinking is still influenced by the patterns of their socialist youth. Terms like ‘solidarity’ or ‘equality’ are more frequent in their vocabulary than in the vocabulary of the young people today. Although they consider themselves as politically liberal, the ideological framework of their early education is still their in their minds, either in a conscious or less conscious way.
Youth as a vulnerable group with potentially high social costs
Young people are more vulnerable and likelier to drift to the margins of society – maybe forever, if something goes wrong. They are more likely to use illicit drugs, join extremist groups or commit a crime. Youth unemployment across the EU is more than twice as high as adult unemployment. When young people do have jobs, they are often temporary or part time which is twice as likely as adults. If young people waste their twenties or early thirties without opportunities to acquire important skills, they risk wasting an entire life in terms of productivity and creativity. Even worse, if they sink to illegal or self-destructive activities, they risk being wasted altogether without possibility to recover. In technical terms, this is ‘wasted human capital’. In more humane language, this is morally unacceptable.
Rough estimates show that preventable risky youth behaviours induce losses to society amounting to billions of dollars or euros. For example, in Latin America and the Caribbean, a range of negative youth behaviours reduces economic growth by up to two percent annually. These numbers do not reflect unquantifiable costs, such as psychological distress, less civic participation or very poor health. For this reason, some extra resources should be dedicated to create safety nets for the young, and avert long-term or even permanent disasters which are much more likely to happen in their cases.
Investment in youth as a condition for social cohesion
A lot of problems of social inequality are caused due to unequal opportunities made available to people in the early stages of their lives. A rich child usually gets better education and access to better jobs, which multiply in the future its initial advantages. If a wealthy child is, say, five times richer than another child at the age of 15, it is likely to become ten or more times richer than the poorer one at the age of 45. Poverty deprives young people from good education, health and skills, while lack of education or poor health may seal forever the future of a poor kid. The most appropriate moment to break this vicious cycle is in the young years. Granting equal opportunities to all young people is the best condition for a fairer and more equal society within the next 30 or 40 years of their lives. If a low class person receives good education or career opportunities at the age of 20 or 25, its chances to converge with higher classes later on are very good. If a 45-years old person receives the same opportunities, it might be too late for him/her to accomplish such a convergence.
Inequality is particularly crucial in the area of education. I would thus like to present some worrying facts and figures. A survey of 2015 in EU-28 indicated a serious level of underachieving among 15 year-old’s: 17.8% in reading, 22.1% in mathematics and 16.6% in science. According to the same survey, in Bulgaria, Cyprus, Romania, Greece, Slovakia and Hungary, over half of all 15 year-old’s with low socioeconomic status under-perform in mathematics. In primary education, 18% of students do not learn any foreign languages. There are also problems concerning school drop-outs. Data show that the EU-28 average early school leaving rate stood at 11.1% in 2014. In addition, about 60% of early school leavers are subsequently either inactive or unemployed, illustrating how educational poverty has long-term and serious repercussions. The situation is particularly problematic in the case of students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds and minority ethnic groups. What are the chances for those young people to catch-up with the rest of the society in their more mature years? Obviously very low. Therefore increased resources should be dedicated to those persons as matter of social justice and cohesion.
Youth is robust
There is a wide array of measures to support youth: dual training programs that combine vocational training and job practice; cheaper access to basic infrastructures and public services; programmes encouraging more active civic and political participation; programs to protect from illicit drug use, alcoholism, extremism and criminality – just to name a few. All those programmes should of course be made available to all other groups as well.
The young are not always the most vulnerable nor the most excluded persons of a society. But they are the most hopeful. Boosting their chances and morale may have multiple positive effects to the entire society. A society of hopeful and engaged young people, is a more robust society altogether.
This article is part of a balanced debate on youth investment. you can access the counter argument by Brain Milne.