COVID-19 threatens to create a 'lockdown generation' in Europe: Here's why young people could be the ones paying for yet another crisis

  • There are growing fears that a "lockdown generation" may emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic in Europe.
  • In Spain, youth unemployment has risen to extreme highs. In Poland, nearly a quarter of young people are struggling to pay their bills. 
  • The European Union has been urged to step in, including by the European Youth Forum, the main advocacy group for young people in Europe.
  • But the EU has cut its budgets for youth programs, and forum President Carina Autengruber warns that without action, young people will "pay for yet another crisis."
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

Fears are growing of a COVID-19 "lockdown generation" in Europe: Young people whose futures will likely be ruined by the economic calamity caused by the virus. 

In April, unemployment rose four times higher among the young (15.4%) in the European Union (EU) than among the overall population (6.6%), EU data shows. Despite calls from the European Youth Forum, the main advocacy group for young people in Europe, to do something, the EU has cut budgets for youth programmes — and forum President Carina Autengruber warns that without action, young people will "pay for yet another crisis."

In Spain, which had one of the strictest lockdowns in Europe, and where unemployment was already higher than the EU average, youth unemployment rose by 33% in April, far higher than the 18.7% increase among the overall population.

During the first months of the pandemic, a third of Polish young people felt their career prospects were uncertain because of school closures and career delays. Nearly a quarter struggled to earn enough money to pay for their bills, according to a survey from the UN's International Labour Organisation (ILO). 

The Belgian public health institute Sciensano found in April that the number of people aged 18-24 who reported feeling depressed or anxious had tripled among women and quadrupled among men during the first wave of the pandemic.

Meanwhile, COVID-19 also disrupted Erasmus, an EU-wide exchange program which 170,000 young people are using. Many of them reported major problems related to their grants, accommodation, or ability to go back home.

And the first wave of COVID-19 also disrupted the school year of millions of students across the bloc, including international students.

The European Youth Forum warns that the crisis could make unemployment the norm for young people. "It has become clear that not everyone is equal in the face of the pandemic," Autengruber tells Business Insider. "Vulnerable groups, such as young people, who already face challenges and barriers to accessing rights, have been disproportionately affected.

"If we want to prevent the lockdown generation, we must ensure that we do not go back to the status quo and instead look to build a sustainable, fair system based on social rights, equality and democracy."

The Forum, which represents more than 100 organizations across Europe, has been urging EU institutions to boost youth social programmes, encourage the creation of quality entry-level jobs, invest in public services and finance social protection schemes, and ban practices that favor the rich, such as unpaid internships.

Although the required action is complex and costly, Autengruber says the benefits might help the EU respond to the historic recession that the bloc is heading for. The economies of EU countries are forecast to shrink by 7.8% this year.

"European institutions must look at the holistic picture and value, not just the economy, but champion our rights — investing in young people is investing in Europe's identity," she adds.

The EU's COVID-19 finance package could've addressed some of these issues — but the forum calls it a "rude awakening" for young people.

After several months of negotiations, heads of state of EU governments decided in July to reduce the budget previously proposed by the European Commission, triggering protests from lawmakers in the European Parliament, who said the proposed cuts to education, digital transformation, and innovation "jeopardize the future of the next generation of Europeans."

The last and final round of negotiations ended on November 10. Lawmakers in the European Parliament had been trying to squeeze out an additional 40 billion euros ($47.4 billion) from member states for key programs such as Erasmus — they instead got an extra 15 billion euros ($17.8 billion).

The preliminary agreement must be ratified by the whole parliament and EU leaders before the cash is made available for member states.

The exchange programme Erasmus+, which generations of students have used to study abroad, is to lose more than 3 billion euros ($3.55 billion) of the funding the European Commission first proposed in May — it will get 21.2 billion euros ($25.1 billion) instead of 25 billion euros ($29.6 billion).

Investment in innovation is to be cut even harder: Horizon Europe, a research programme, went from 13.5 billion euros ($16 billion) to 5 billion euros ($5.9 billion) during negotiations. 

Meanwhile, the 6.7 billion euros ($7.9 billion) agreed for Digital Europe — a programme that aims to scale up digital technologies such as high-performance computers, artificial intelligence, and cybersecurity — was well below the commission's initial proposal of 8.2 billion euros ($9.7 billion).

The European University Association (EUA) said the outcome of the budget negotiations "reveals a failure to invest strategically in the future."

"Funding for Erasmus+ needs to be boosted, and the budget allocation to Horizon Europe re-evaluated to protect funding to fundamental, curiosity-driven research, which is core to our long-term success," the EUA said after EU leaders agreed in a draft stimulus package in July.

EU's response 'not feasible'

The EU's Youth Guarantee is specifically designed to support younger people — but this, too, appears to be lacking, just when it's needed most. 

In June, when most EU countries eased their lockdowns, the bloc's youth unemployment rate was 16.8%. More than 2.9 million people aged under 25 were without a job.

The European Commission quickly presented its plan for a "reinforced" Youth Guarantee, expanding the scope of a programme designed in 2013 to help young people find work after the financial crisis. 

However, the European Youth Forum says the latest plan lacks "the focus on quality," and will not stop young people being forced into insecure and low-paid jobs. The forum noted how, in 2017, the European Court of Auditors found that the guarantee had limited and slow impact on youth unemployment.

Critics have also argued it is under-financed, given the number of young unemployed. The European Commission suggested in early July that at least €22 billion should be spent on youth employment schemes — but the European Youth Forum believes that "this might not be feasible" after the cuts by EU leaders.

"It's damaging to the European project as young citizens need to feel supported by the EU… It would be not only counterproductive but also irresponsible to put additional obstacles to young people's active participation in the labour market and society," Autengruber adds. 

Whether they look at the EU's budget, its Youth Guarantee, or individual economies, Europe's "lockdown generation" appears to have little to cheer this winter.

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