European Elections Special

Overqualified and underpaid

Europe’s unemployed young people don’t mind a little economic insecurity. What they can’t stand is a chronic atmosphere of political hopelessness. No wonder they are fleeing the continent.

Young people appear to be the social group most affected by the lingering economic crisis of the EU. Around a quarter of them is unemployed. As expected, the situation is the most dramatic in the countries on the European periphery: In Spain 57 per cent of the population below 30 is unable to find a job, according to the most recent Eurostat figures. The worrying list also includes Greece with 58 per cent and Croatia, the Union’s newest member state, with 52 per cent.

Being young, motivated, and well-educated no longer means being on the path for financial independence today. Especially not in Spain, where many ambitious graduates are refused employment on the grounds of being overqualified. The lucky ones might find an unpaid internship or an underpaid, temporary job that scarcely matches their qualifications.

Latin America beats Germany

For that reason, many Spaniards have begun seeking employment elsewhere. Irene S. (30) has been living in Canada for two and a half years where she is pursuing a PhD in Communication. Back in Spain, she had worked as a journalist: “I actually worked for three newsrooms at the same time,” she says, “But the conditions were precarious.”

Other European countries, particularly the economically strong states like Germany and France, are increasingly losing their appeal for migrants like Irene. Studies have shown that Latin America is slowly becoming as popular as European countries. “Many of my friends have already left Spain,” Irene explains, “I now have friends in Chile, Mexico, the United States, France – everywhere.”

89% of Spain’s emigrants have a college degree. This should not come as a surprise, since it has always been the well-educated that were more willing to move and had higher chances of finding a job abroad. But even students are leaving the country. Thousands of them took to the streets when the Rajoy administration announced to not only slash scholarships for advanced degrees, but to also cut the financing of the Erasmus program.

Erasmus is what allows many young Spaniards to go abroad in the first place; often, it is their first meaningful stay abroad. Many students remain in their host countries or quickly return there. Not only because continuing their studies back home is difficult in the absence of government scholarships, but also because other countries frequently offer better job chances than Spain. Other countries’ job markets might be crowded by native graduates, but even a low-paid job is often favorable to what is being offered back home.

When I ask Irene whether she could imagine returning to Spain in the next 5 to 10 years, she responds “No, not at all!” Her plans reflect an ongoing trend. “At my going-away party, a friend warned me that Canada was going to be too cold for somebody from Spain. She suggested that I would surely be back soon. Then, six months later, she contacted me to ask for advice considering the Canadian immigration process.”

If she were to return, Irene believes that she would surely find a job in Spain. “But what kind of job would it be? How much money would I make? And would it be enough to start a family? When I left Spain, it was because I was fed up with the political situation there and in the rest of Europe. I was very upset. And so leaving the country was really a means of survival: Nobody can live through constant, desperate indignation.”

The weak are being crippled

In European politics, fighting youth unemployment is a flagship initiative. But it also constitutes populism, yet another case of the symptomatic therapy: On the one hand, European governments try to create jobs through large investment sums. They do not care which kinds of jobs are created – as long as they provide employment. On the other hand, they encourage migration towards the economically strong countries through their campaigns and subsidies. As a result, countries in the European periphery are weakened even further.

Being able to move within the entire continent is undoubtedly a blessing. But in political marketing, even the desperate kind of migration is held up as proof of successful European integration. While being able to study or work abroad offers a valuable experience and contributes to integration, it does so only when equal opportunities are offered in all countries – and when a return home is a realistic option.

Translated from German

Read more in this debate: Moritz Pfeifer, Claire Courteille-Mulder , Glenda Quintini.

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