Silvia Favasuli is an Italian journalist living in London.
"I should be more rootless", Sarah told me. It was a Sunday afternoon and she was looking at the small stash of belongings she had collected over the course of one third of her life. Sarah is 37 years old. "I'm worried that there won't be enough room in the new flat I'll be renting with Robin from February". Oliva, my other flatmate is also 37 years old and still in shared accommodation.
A few weeks ago I met with 50-something Jean, for one of our regular chats to improve each other’s second language. In good Italian she told me all about her forthcoming three-day trip to Paris. "It's a present for my second daughter. She came back to live with me and my husband since she can't afford renting a room in London any more. She’s feeling a bit depressed, and I wanted to do something to cheer her up".
Last year, as I was packing the few belongings I wanted to bring with me on my one-way trip to London, I was certain that I would leave behind once and for all the feeling of precariousness which kept me awake too many nights in my rented room in Milan. Like many young Italians I was facing a life of low salaries, decrepit houses rented at soaring prices, and fewer and fewer job opportunities, not at all what I had been dreaming of as I swotted for my University exams.
It took me barely a few months in London to realise that the situation here is not much better. Aside for the greater meritocracy and transparency that this country provides, even in the UK the government seems not in the least interested in tackling the problems of the younger generations. In fact, it is the young who pay the highest price for the ideology of austerity.
Back in the autumn I couldn't believe my eyes when I read that even in the UK, where at least the economy is growing, pensioners are enjoying higher incomes than people in work. Just the other day, George Osborne faced a backbench revolt over his stealth raid on the pensions of higher-income taxpayers to help pay off the deficit. This episode reminded me of the proposal made by Tito Boeri, The President of the Italian department for Pensions and Social security, who suggested cuts to the gold-plated pensions and generous lifelong payments to former members of Parliament and local governors. Matteo Renzi’s Italian government rejected the idea the very same day it was first aired.
All across Europe national governments are sacrificing the future of an entire generation, the Millennials, to their utterly ruthless aim of retaining power. Unfortunately, this is not just my personal experience in Milan or in London but a reality for many. According to the Social Justice Index drafted by the Bertelsmann Stiftung Fundation, young people in Europe are becoming poorer and poorer; whereas the older population is improving its economic conditions. The situation has deteriorated after the economic crisis of 2008 and is particularly dramatic in the South of Europe.
While the share of children at risk of poverty or social exclusion has increased from 26.4 to 27.9 per cent on average in the EU since 2007, the corresponding share of the population of 65 years of age and over facing the same risk has dropped from 24.4 to 17.8 per cent. According the Index, the main reason must be found in retirement benefits and old-age pensions not declining or not shrinking as rapidly as the incomes of the younger population.
According to the Foundation, this contrasting development among the young and old is exacerbated by three Europe-wide trends: growing public debt is burdening the younger generations, future investment in education as well as research and development is stagnating, and ageing populations are putting increasing pressure on the financial viability of social security systems. For example, the debt level in EU member states relative to their economic output has increased from 63 per cent in 2008 to 88 per cent today.
If national governments are proving incapable of equally distributing the effects of cuts across generations, the European Union should intervene. A consistent way to tackle the problem could be allowing national governments to exceed the Stability and Growth Pact when introducing measures targeted to young people. In other words, national measures aimed at supporting the younger generations, from the introduction of unemployment benefits for self-employed to tax reliefs for junior enterprises, as well as support in entering the property market, should be kept out from budget deficit targets defined by the European Stability and Growth Pact.
The previous - and so far only - attempt to intervene at EU level, the Youth Guarantee, has not proved particularly effective. The programme is aimed at ensuring that young people under 25 receive a good-quality offer of a job, apprenticeship, or continued education within four months of them leaving formal education or becoming unemployed, and has been partially funded by the EU.
Brussels has been offering €6bn annually, asking national governments to inject the rest. As reported by Ibtimes last August, an analysis by the ILO (United Nation's International Labour Organisation) showed that 60% of member states have budgeted less than recommended, leaving a €7.3bn funding gap. It is no surprise that in many cases the programme didn't produce the desired effects. In Italy, for example, only 17% of Neet (Not in Education, Employment, or Training) are registered to the program. Moreover, the age limits of the project, kept out a large band of Millennials struggling with the effects of the economic crisis. Finally the programme tackled only one problem facing young people, unemployment, but much more needs to be done, for instance on housing and the rental sector.
Instead of roaming through Europe in search for a deal that would stop Poles, Italians, Spaniards and Greeks moving to the UK, Mr Cameron should be pushing for more youth-oriented European programmes. Making their own countries more attractive to twenty and thirty-somethings is the best way to save them the hassle of starting a new life in a foreign country. But it falls particularly on the European Left, long dedicated to the cause of equality and social mobility, to make the youth question a central focus of its policies in Europe.
We should not forget that MPs sitting in Rome, London, Madrid or MEPs in the European Parliament in Brussels belong to the generation that came of age in the most peaceful and prosperous era in the history of Europe. A precarious life and an absolute lack of opportunities cannot be the only inheritance they leave for those coming behind them.
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