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December 22, 2014
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In bedroom limbo

Protesters shout slogans during a rally against a new austerity package in front of the Parliament in Athens in June last year.
By Ivan Briscoe
For the Herald

In Europe, cuts and growth at expense of the young

THE HAGUE — Frog-marched to the trenches is not an enviable way to have your life cut short. So in a year marking the centenary of the outbreak of World War I, it is to heartening to know that Europe’s young people could not have found a better sanctuary. Rather than expire in Flanders, nearly half of them are to be found living at home with their parents.

We should be thankful for these mercies. The young adults staring for the millionth time at the fixed smile of their favourite cuddly hippo may beg to differ. According to Eurofound, an EU agency, 48 percent of adults aged 18-30 live at home with their parents, the highest figure of its kind ever recorded. The concentration of those adhering to the family bosom reaches by far its highest levels in the Mediterranean states, as has always been the case. No one would question the pleasures of the Italian kitchen, but a full 79 percent of young Italians cannot all be lured by fatto in casa.

The increase in the number of stay-at-homes is not only marked in Italy and Spain, which together with Greece command the inglorious heights of Europe’s youth unemployment league — Spain’s figure now stands at 57 percent. Identical trends can be spotted in Scandinavia, France and Austria. Even where work is available, as it is in these countries, no longer it is stable or well-paying enough to place the young on two feet. According to a polling analyst from Ipsos Mori, British surveys show “how much pressure the youngest generation feel under — they’re the most likely to see themselves as poor even a good few years into their careers, which is historically unusual.”

How harsh this new deal is for Europe’s young depends on your perspective. From the vantage point of mass conscription, it is a trifling matter; grin and bear it. When compared with the materially upward lifetime curves of those born in the continent’s post-war baby boom, who are now pensioners, it is an issue for serious contemplation. But when the focus turns to the ways the young have become the main victims of the budget cuts and fiscal chill following the financial crisis, it could become a matter for serious political dispute between the generations.

It is these last two angles of interpretation that are most prominent in debate on the youth malaise. The first takes global economic and technological change at face value, and regrets to inform us that Europe’s young people have been diagnosed with planned obsolescence. Outsourced factories, robotized back offices and anaemic public sectors form the blackened horizon that greets them out of school or university. Major players in the fields of robotics and IT expect the same productivity-enhancing processes will accelerate in the next two decades, taking huge digitally networked chunks out the guilds of medics, lawyers, financial analysts and many of the last manual professions.

Some 47 percent of jobs in the United States, for instance, are now at risk from computerization, according to a study on the subject carried out by Oxford University academics. Which raises the question: why not let those other 53 percent go too? Clumsy, short-sighted and easily distracted work units such as Homo sapiens might well be ill-suited to a new era of global economic excellence and optimal output. The thinking among the cognoscenti is noted in a recent Financial Times report on the subject: “The slow speed of human labour causes bottlenecks in an increasingly digital production chain. Even an army of analysts with calculators and spreadsheets would be unable to process all the data being churned out by some of today’s systems.”

Data may possibly not be such a vengeful God. A more generous economic future would see these systems and machines give rise to more interesting work — a granule of solace for today’s young, perhaps. However, each profession will have to find its own way through the rotating blades, and here is where the young will be cruelly differentiated.

Forgive this columnist for branding the example of journalism. Formerly an open door for educated graduates with no idea of what they wanted to do in the world, entry to the new multiverse of news production hubs is a cut-throat affair, utterly precarious, low-paid if paid at all, and sure to generate multiple repetitive strains in muscle zones vital for survival. In the future, meanwhile, the business model for journalists who withstand this experience, according to a recent analysis from the Nieman Journalism Lab, will likely be as individual or group entrepreneurs selling boutique knowledge of a certain specialized area. A professional nirvana, no doubt, but so long as job stability and training is discarded by media companies, one to which only the well-off may presumably apply.

The brooding sense of injustice in the way the young have been dealt a losing hand brings us to the second approach to the issue. Britain offers the outstanding example of a country that is not just suffering extreme version of techno-economic rupture — witness the proliferation of Amazon retail depots, with its now notorious electronic tagging of employees — but also a sustained government campaign to seek cuts and growth at the expense of the young. Tripling of university fees, welfare restrictions, spiralling property prices and weakening labour rights amount to a radical economic bias against the young. For at the same time, the country’s pensioners, who are demographically large and like to vote in elections, have been treated far more indulgently. The latest budget ruse from the coalition government would see them allowed to cash in their pension pots for big spend items upon retirement.

“Generational jihad” is the hyperbolic term used in parts of the British media to describe the emergence of political conflict based on age. The truth is that the idea of a war between the grey and the gangly has little going for it; the two sides tend to share Christmas dinner. And mass data has yet to make a major difference to the inevitability of ageing. Yet jihads occur when reason is absent, and no one is getting any saner in their childhood bedrooms.

@itbriscoe

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