Youth unemployment is once again on the rise. Over 3 million young people in the EU are now unemployed in the EU with their career aspirations put on hold. They view their futures with considerable anxiety and some will even be facing poverty and homelessness. These young people risk becoming another ‘lost generation’ and the pandemic will test the effectiveness of the EU’s policies such as the Youth Guarantee in preventing that from happening.
The Youth Guarantee, introduced in 2013, states that all young people should be provided with an offer of employment, education or training within four months of becoming unemployed or leaving education. All the EU member states have implemented the policy and 3.5 million young people are supported by the scheme each year. In October 2020 the Reinforcement of the Youth Guarantee was adopted, making a number of changes including the expansion of the scheme from under 25s to under 30s. Despite shortcomings that have been highlighted by youth organisations, it is a key measure for supporting young people’s access to the labour market.
Progress has been made in the EU to reduce youth unemployment following the financial crisis, but this is now being reversed. The youth unemployment rate in the EU has increased by three percentage points between December 2019 and December 2020, a much larger rise than the one percentage point increase in overall unemployment. There are also significant national level differences. Over the same period, youth unemployment rates have risen by 5 percentage points or more in seven EU Member States and by over ten percentage points in Estonia, Lithuania and Spain.
The disproportionate impact of the pandemic on young people compared to the general population leads us to question whether the Youth Guarantee has been able to address the structural issues making young people more vulnerable to unemployment.
The warning signs of the unstable situation for young people were there even before the pandemic hit. Youth organisations have repeatedly highlighted the increasing precariousness of young people on the labour market, with temporary employment among young people (age 15 - 24) in the EU very high at 47.8%, compared to 13.5% for the overall workforce.
The problem is especially serious in Spain, currently the EU member state with the highest rate of youth unemployment at 40.7% and it also has the highest rate of temporary employment among young people, at 68.5%.
However, so far little action has been undertaken to address this and unfortunately there has been no reduction in the number of young people engaged in non-standard work since the Youth Guarantee’s introduction. In fact, many youth organisations report that the Youth Guarantee has actually reinforced this trend towards precarious work among young people who are often only offered low-paid temporary jobs of a very short duration through the Youth Guarantee. Despite the important positive contributions made by the Youth Guarantee to improve youth employment policies at national level, this shortcoming undermines its success.
Overlooking the quality of young people’s employment means that we are overlooking the important issue of their longer-term labour market integration. Non-standard work is often very precarious, providing little protection from unemployment and it is an important contributing factor to the much faster increase in young people’s unemployment levels during this pandemic.
It also often leaves young people unable to access unemployment benefits due to short work histories and they are left vulnerable to the long-term scarring associated with periods of unemployment. Beyond its impact on unemployment, it also undermines young people’s school to work transition making it much more difficult for young people to have the financial security to reach important milestones in life such as owning their own home.
The reinforcement of the Youth Guarantee is a crucial opportunity to upgrade the scheme and ensure it makes a real positive impact for young people in Europe. The best way to do this is by introducing binding quality standards which set out criteria for what a good quality offer looks like at EU level. We recently published our own proposal for Quality Standards for the Youth Guarantee that can be implemented at EU or national level, it states that all employment offers should provide good job security, fair pay, and access to social protection, in addition to controls on employers to prevent abuses of the scheme.
Defining what a good quality offer looks like under the Youth Guarantee and introducing binding standards can make the Youth Guarantee a powerful force to genuinely address the underlying issue of precarious non-standard work among young people. This gives us the possibility to genuinely ‘build back better’ from this pandemic by improving the quality of employment for young people to give them long-term job security and better protection from future economic downturns.
 This is also true more widely. See, for example, the ILO’s policy brief on the impact of the pandemic on youth labour markets globally.
This article is part of the Decent Jobs for Youth Blog Series: Youth Rights & Voices. The Blog Series highlights the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on young women and men in the world of work and discusses action-oriented policy responses and solutions. If you would like to comment or contribute, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.