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Youth around the world facing a ‘new normal’


Unemployment was one of the main themes for three days of intensive knowledge sharing at the Journal of Youth Studies Conference 2015. More than 300 of the best minds within the field of youth research gathered in Copenhagen.

What challenges does the recent deep financial crisis leave young people with? Why are unemployment rates among young people lower in some of the Nordic countries compared with Southern Europe, for instance? And how does this crisis differ from previous crises when youth unemployment also rocketed? These were some of the questions discussed at the Journal of Youth Studies Conference 2015 in Copenhagen from 30 March to 1 April.

Did we get any answers? Well, the local organisers – researcher Signe Ravn from the Danish National Centre for Social Research (SFI) and Tea Torbenfeldt Bengtsson from the University of Copenhagen – had lined up more than 270 paper presentations and five keynote speakers. Although not all of the speakers focussed on crisis, unemployment and poverty, the first keynote, given by the three editors from the Journal of Youth Studies - Tracy Shildrick, Andy Furlong and Rob MacDonald – set the scene for what was going to be one of the most debated topics during the conference.

“There is increasing poverty among young people today. Children from the lower and middle classes risk being worse off than their parents were. This is not only because of the recession. It is also due to deeper structures,” Tracy Shildrick started.

This rather saddening statement fitted well into the grey and rainy Danish weather and was followed by an appeal to the more than 300 youth researchers attending the huge international conference. “As the increase in unemployment rates cannot only be explained by reference to the financial crisis, research has to focus more on classical factors, such as poverty and social class structures, to understand the risks and challenges that young people are facing today,” Tracy Shildrick argued.

A new normal

The crisis has left every fifth EU citizen below 25 years of age without a job (21.4 percent at the end of 2014) and in Spain, half of the population below 25 is neither in a job nor in an education. The impact on youth – and the lack of an answer – surprises one of the central figures in youth research, Ken Roberts, professor at the University of Liverpool, who would like to think that after more than 50 years of research he has seen it all before.

“But I haven’t seen it all before. In the 1970s we saw youth unemployment as a temporary problem that would go away once the economy recovered. In the 1980s and 1990s we were in transition to a knowledge economy, where young people needed more skills and more education. What we have now is a new normal,” said Prof. Roberts.

He stressed that unemployment has led to a higher degree of inequality across a number of countries in the Western World, including Scandinavia; traditionally recognised as being very egalitarian.

The Nordic Model

This brings us to back to the question of why unemployment rates have not increased as much in the Nordic countries as in the remainder of Europe. In Norway, only 7.5 percent of the population under 25 years is without a job, while the figure is approximately 10 percent for Denmark. Jon Kvist, professor at Roskilde University in Denmark, gives credit to the Nordic Model.

“We have a welfare model that is relatively better than models in most other European countries. We have put much effort into equipping children properly, even before they start school. In nurseries and kindergartens they learn basic skills that make them more able to cope with the challenges they will be meeting through life,” he said.

Furthermore, the principle of flexicurity, that basically makes it easy to hire and easy to fire, helps in times of financial crisis. Employers are not taking any great risk by hiring young, inexperienced people, as they can easily get rid of them again. That is, Jon Kvist argues, more difficult in a lot of countries with a poor economy in which welfare models provide good services for people in the labour market but not for those outside.

“It is very much a matter of job protection. Therefore, the system often discriminates against young people, and this is even worse in times of financial crisis. Employers simply don’t want to take the risk of hiring young people,” Prof. Kvist said.

No voodoo magic

The massive change in labour market conditions might have a different impact in different countries and regions. Therefore, the answer to how to cope with it also differs, according to which youth researcher you ask. However, it seems that most agree that we are seeing a ‘new normal’ that needs to be handled in way we have not tried before.

”It is voodoo sociology to think that we can solve the problem of youth unemployment by motivating and educating young people even more. The numbers show something else. For example, 47 percent of British graduates with higher-education qualifications have a job that does not require higher education,” Rob MacDonald said.

A lot of questions were raised during the three rainy days in Copenhagen. So what is next?

“Next for us as researchers is to document the implications of this ‘new normal’,” said Signe Ravn, senior researcher at the Danish National Centre for Social Research. Tea Torbenfeldt Bengtsson, assistant professor at the Department of Sociology, University of Copenhagen, added: “And how these implications might not be equally distributed”.

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