Article: Europe Struggles to prevent a ‘lost generation’

Europe Struggles to prevent a ‘lost generation’
Young job seekers fear they won’t be hired even when recovery takes hold

Harold Tribune, New York Times
April 28, 2009, Paris
Sophie Hardach

“Malcolm Hammer left university more than six years ago but, like thousands of other French graduates, he is stuck in economic limbo, drifting between internships, temporary jobs and freelance work.

In Italy. Germany, Spain and Greece, many graduates and young workers are in similar circumstances, and the economic crisis is likely to worsen their plight.

We are the people who did everything right: good degrees, internships, accepting any working conditions, and we still can’t find a proper job, said Hammer, 34, who shares an apartment in Paris with friends. It’s just so much easier for companies to take interns instead of creating jobs.

As the youth riots in Greece showed last year, frustration can quickly turn into violence. France, too, has a record of protests.

More worrying is the risk of the downturn creating a Iost generation in Europe that will miss out on an eventual upturn, as occurred in Japan, where young workers have been excluded from the formal job market since the last crisis in the 1990s.

Slowing growth is alarming workers everywhere, but for young people like Hammer, the outlook is particularly bleak.

For the past few years, they have grappled with a rigid labor market in much of Europe, where older employees cling to welI-protected permanent jobs while younger temporary workers or interns fill the gaps and are discarded when no longer did. Within the family, solidarity is strong since many have to stay with their parents for longer, Hammer said, adding that this contrasts with social friction outside the family.

There’s a war of generations and strong competition between the different age groups, he said.

In the fourth quarter of 2008, the unemployment rate for French workers aged 15 to 24 was 21.2 percent, having steadily risen over the year. That age group represents 8 percent of France’s active work force. Their unemployment was nearly three times the jobless rate for those aged 25 to 49, which stood at 7.4 percent. For workers over 49, it was 5.2 percent.

With the French economy estimated to shrink 1.2 percent in the first three months of this year, according to a Reuters survey of economists, companies are likely to lay off more temporary staff and invest Iess in training.

That could aggravate one of Continental Europe’s big problems: workers who flit between jobs and are unable to plan their future, start a family or buy a house because of constant uncertainty.

Some temporary contracts are very good stepping stones for young people, said Glenda Quintini, a researcher at the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, who studies youth labor in Europe. For others, it can be a trap that can last forever.

Japan, once a proud defender of lifetime employment, saw its job market crash during the decade-iong slump of the 1990s.

By 2007, roughly a third of Japanese workers were in non regular employment, according to a report by Changun an, another O.E.C.D. researcher. When Japanese companies started hiring again a few years ago, they picked fresh graduates rather than workers tarnished by years of low-skilled work or unemployment.

Three years ago, Hammer and his friends set up Generation Precaire, a French organization that defends the rights of interns and other workers in precarious situations. Their anger is shared by many.

According to a study published in 2008 by the Foundation for Political Innovation, an independent French policy research group, only 26 percent of French people between the ages of 16 and 29 see their future as promising, compared with 60 percent of Danes and 54 percent of Americans in the same age group.

Germany and Italy have bred similar movements fighting for the Praekariat and the precariato, respectively.

They want companies to give steady jobs to young people instead of using interns as a inexpensive alternative to hiring a practice that is particularly tempting at a time when budgets are tight.

The crisis is forcing us to be particularly vigilant about the proper use of internships by employers, France’s top official for youth issues, Martin Hirsch, said in a speech in March.

Pressured by protests, President Nicolas Sarkozy has announced a plan to spend more than 1 billion, or $1.3 billon, on youth job initiatives. Ideas include promoting training programs, like apprenticeships, and courses to retrain graduates who cannot find work in their sector.

Some have proposed subsidizing jobs linked to the local community or non- profit organizations, or rewarding companies for hiring young people.

Some previous government efforts, like a contract proposed in 2006 that would have made it easier to hire and fire first-time workers, have been scrapped in the face of large protests by youths who feared it would make life even more uncertain.

France’s young people are preparing for more protests, taking inspiration from the 1968 student uprising that blossomed into a general strike.

There’s an anger among the young that’s even stronger than in May 1968, Julien Bayou, who finished his studies five years ago and now runs a public reIations business, said during student protests earlier this month. It’s an entire age group that’s being held in contempt.”

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