Saturday, April 24, 2010

The precarious society

Yesterday, the European Youth Forum (YFJ) invited young European citizens to a debate on the precarious working conditions for young people. The video that they spread before the event shows the urgency of action:

40% of young Europeans (15-24) are on a temporary work contract, 25% are at a risk of poverty, 20,6% are unemployed. And as they grow older, precariousness does not stop. College graduates spend years going from internship to internship. They are highly qualified, highly capable and highly productive. The college graduates among my friends are far away from a stable living environment. There are simply so many qualified graduates, that enterprises and public bodies can recruit them without paying. I picked this from a random European job website: "favourable consideration will be given to applicants who are eligible for funding via Erasmus or other programmes". In other words, please give us your knowledge, your enthusiasm and your working time...oh, and please get taxpayers to reimburse us the cost.

Even those who are firmly established in an enterprise cannot settle and start a family. They are dispatched to a particular city for six months, then dispatched again. In Düsseldorf, Germany, there is a new market in shared apartments for young business employees. With their signature on the contract, young employees also buy a network of like-minded young travelers - a new temporary family so to speak.

Is this the end of bourgeois civilization, if not everywhere then at least among university graduates? Are families now founded at age 40 instead of 30, or not at all any more? The futurist Matthias Horx suggests that young citizens have to accommodate these changes and take out the positive implications. He concedes that the job market is becoming more complex; citizens have to be flexible and react to the changes in demand as they occur. If demand arises for a wellness consultant, then citizens should specialize in this field. And re-specialize if demand falls again.

On the other hand, Horx believes that flexibility allows citizens a greater liberty and a more self-determined life. Work must not be the only factor of personal identification and satisfaction, he says. Temporary occupations allow citizens to refocus on themselves and on their own skills rather than the needs of their enterprise. Thus, saving money during working periods may allow a few months of reflection phase or training when a temporary contract has terminated. But not all young citizens have the possibility to save if they need to care for a family at the same time.

Certainly, a more flexible society also bears opportunities. Life in a shared apartment with young, highly qualified business employees will provide more contacts, more network and maybe more creativity and technology than a family home. But shouldn't the choice be left to young people themselves?

The audience at the New Energy Debate of the European Youth Forum answered that question with a resounding "yes!". In questions to Commissioner Maroš Ševčovič (inter-institutional relations) and the chairman of the Parliament Intergroup on Youth, Damien Abad, MEP, members of international and national youth organizations demanded quick action on youth unemployment. They also demanded that non-formal learning and a combination of university and vocational education be given a formal status, and recognized by European employers. This way, they hope, young citizens will be able to clearly present their skills to the market. Damien Abad (30) recognized the needs in his answers to the audience and proposed two further ideas: an Erasmus for apprentices and a European status for interns.

Those can only be small steps on the way to a more secure future for young citizens in Europe. It is clear that there is no way back to former patterns of bourgeois society. Education, consistently following the development on the market and reacting to new situations - these are the patterns of the knowledge society. But it is up to politicians, enterprises and organized civil society to make these changes socially sustainable. The initiative of the Youth Forum was certainly a first step in the right direction.

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