4th Dec 2023


What Spain, Greece and Italy are doing to fight rampant youth unemployment

  • Workers in precarious jobs are 2.5 times more likely to suffer a mental disorder (Photo: Pexels)
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Every month, Eurostat publishes youth unemployment figures for the EU-27. Every month, it is led by the same countries: Greece, Spain and Italy.

In the first two, almost three-in-ten young people were unemployed. In the third, just over 22 percent.

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  • Italy loses some 79,000 graduates annually in its 'brain drain' (Photo: Unsplash)

The problem is not new in this trio of countries, and recent years (and inadequate active employment policies) have only added to the challenge, in states already under pressure from changing demographic trends.

To illustrate it, since 2008, the loss of purchasing power among young Spaniards is close to 23 percent, according to Juan Antonio Báez, vice-president of the Spanish Youth Council (CJE).

Moreover, the rate of Spanish youth living independently of their parents stands at half the European average. To leave the family home, a young person in Spain has to spend 85 percent of their net annual salary on rent, according to the latest CJE observatory.

Other outstanding factors among the difficulties of Spanish youth are: being over-qualified, low wages, temporary and involuntary part-time work, and the insufficient scope of some amelioratory measures, such as the recent youth rental voucher.

Another worrying (and silent) consequence of precariousness has also come to light after the pandemic: mental health.

According to a report by Spain's ministry of labour, precarious workers are 2.5 times more likely to suffer a mental disorder.

"[The report] points out that the biggest impact is felt by the most exploited and discriminated classes and social groups such as young people, immigrants, women and low-educated workers," stressed minister Yolanda Díaz during the presentation of the study.

For Mark McNulty, board member of the European Youth Forum (EYF), EU countries should prioritise people-centred approaches. "All policies will have to look at how they impact youth, especially after crisis, so they do not deepen social inequalities", he said.

What works for one individual, might not work for another. In developing these employment policies, the social and economic background should be taken into account, McNulty notes.

But what policies? What fails and what works in these three Mediterranean countries? EUobserver asked representatives of the youth councils of Greece, Italy, and Spain these same questions. Here are some of the findings.

€10k a year

As in Spain, the current employment situation of young Italians is characterised by low pay and discontinuity.

According to a survey by the Consiglio Nazionale dei Giovani (CNG), five years after graduation, the respondents had spent an average of 1.5 years out of work.

Their salary? For almost six-out-of-ten surveyed, it was less than €10,000 per year in 2021.

"We need to go beyond the various types of precarious employment contracts, making them possible only in particular cases and at higher costs," Alessandro Fortuna, in charge of youth employment at the Italian Youth Council (CNG), told EUobserver.

So far, Italy's measures have focused on providing tax relief for companies hiring young people in their first years of employment.

"Other measures have not ensured the stabilisation of the labour market for the youngest, but they have constituted measures to find cheap work opportunities", he said.

For example, 'extracurricular internships' in Italy (which do not consider the young person to be a legal employee), are often used to replace permanent staff positions, and keep interns in similar working hours and jobs as regular workers. But without any kind of social protection or collective agreements, underlines Fortuna.

The drastic situation leads them to accept temporary, poorly-paid (or even irregular) contracts, but also pushes them to emigrate, either within the country itself (generally from north to south), or abroad. This 'brain drain' represents an annual loss of around 79,000 graduates for Italy.

"There is a lack of guarantees and safeguards which, as a result, fuels distrust in young people entering the labour market," Fortuna said. "What is missing is stability, safe and quality work".

In Spain, several changes and reforms are trying to tackle this endemic problem. The most popular has been the labour reform undertaken at the end of 2021.

The reform — actually passed merely thanks to a voting error by a dissenting deputy — restricted temporary contracts with new hiring modalities, and made shorter contracts more expensive by imposing higher social security contributions on the companies that use them.

From November 2021 to November 2022, the temporary nature of contracts was reduced to an all-time low of 15 percent. Among those who benefited most were young people. For those aged 20 to 24, temporariness (regarding workers with fixed-term contracts) was reduced from 60 to 26 percent, and for the 25 to 29-year-olds, from 45 to 23 percent.

Other Spanish measures attracting international attention are those focused on improving the transition of young people into the labour market.

In line with the European Youth Forum's campaign to ban unpaid traineeships, in Spain all internships (including those in the academic curriculum) will be contributory to social security from October 2023.

In addition, the ministry of labour and the trade unions continue to work on the 'trainee statute', which aims to pay expenses to all trainees, as well as to provide them with basic labour rights.

"We are going to give trainees rights. No more paying for internships, no more fraud", said Díaz last March.

From 'brain drain' to 'brain gain'

In 2008, the financial crisis hit Greece. Everything changed overnight, explains Anna Zachariadou, representing the Hellenic National Youth Council(ESYN).

Young, inexperienced people paid the price. The impact of the crisis on the private sector caused contract conditions to change and wages to fall.

One of the consequences was that more school-leavers enrolled in some form of higher education. Now, many of them have the same training for the same position, and the market cannot absorb it, Zachariadou adds.

The result is the same as in other southern European countries: 'brain drain'.

"We need a lot of improvement, and it is going to be a long way, but a lot has changed since 2019," Zachariadou said.

That year, a regulation linked graduates directly to labour markets in order to improve the transition of younger applicants.

The country is also working on faster recognition of foreign degrees to encourage young people who have studied abroad to return, and is looking for schemes to link students with companies that offer internships.

Unemployment remains high, but has fallen since the initial imposition of long-term austerity policies, and minimum wages have risen.

The state now offers incentives to buy homes, and for those returning to more rural areas of the country to do more traditional work, such as farming or land exploitation.

The idea underlying these policies is simple: to shift from 'brain drain' to 'brain gain'.

"Young people want to be able to find a job that will provide them with the necessary means to live a normal life, not to live with their parents", Zachariadou stresses.

And that goes beyond paying enough to go out and have a drink once in a while. "They need to feel that they are worth it", she concluded.

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