“Leftist parties lacked economic imagination”

Interview_UO_01In southern Europe every fourth young person is unemployed. But why is this generation the biggest loser of the crisis? We, three young Europeans, met with Dr. Uwe Optenhögel, head of the Friedrich-Ebert foundation office in Brussels. He supports the European Union, yet he is an outspoken critic of their youth policy. What follows is an interview about a lost generation in crisis-ridden Europe. 

Generation Crisis: There have never been so many young people unemployed in the history of the European Union. What is happening?

Optenhögel: A generation is growing up in a severe economic crisis and therefore having difficulties  finding jobs. However, this is not only an economic crisis, but also some kind of a crisis of values. This generation is asking itself what the positive effects of a democratic system are, if this does not produce economic welfare. If unemployment continues, under the current benefit schemes, there will be very few people paying into the unemployment system. In the long run this will have a negative effect on the whole society.

GC: Could the economic crisis have been prevented somehow?

O: Yes, I think it could have been prevented by implementing a totally different economic policy. With a more expansive and more demand-oriented policy, at least a large part of youth unemployment could have been avoided. In fact, the crisis is largely due to an austerity policy which the European Union, along with some of the member States, namely Germany, promoted. These austerity programs aimed to cure the problem of state debt. But instead they have led to youth unemployment, low wages and less social security.


GC: Why weren’t alternatives proposed?

O: Because the austerity approach adopted by European conservatives has not produced the expected results. The neo-liberalist assumption was that once you bring your public finances in order and deregulate some aspects of the economy, the market would fix itself automatically. However, the market alone does not solve anything if it is not well regulated. What we have seen since the economic crisis in 2008 is that we need strong states which stimulate the economy by intervening.

GC: Where were the left wing parties when these decisions were made?

O: The leftist parties showed a tremendous lack of economic imagination and, to some extent, they had given up on leftist economic thinking. In the early 2000s, very few economists of international rank were advocating alternatives to the neo-liberal model, so there were                  no other concepts competing against it. Now new left parties and movements are rising and suggesting different approaches to the crisis, but they are still only minority parties  and they are not strong enough to compete with  bigger European parties.

GC: Also many people with university degrees are unemployed.

O: It is an old problem of the educational system that very often the curricula of the universities do not correspond with the needs of the market or the economy. To solve this, universities should keep in close contact with companies in the respective countries and see what trends in terms of professions there are in the market and consequently adapt the curricula to the actual state of the economy. And I also think that universities should motivate young people to start their own businesses – and governments should support that through risk investment assurances. Yet, universities, and especially the public ones, should not just create programs which allow their graduates to fit into any company. There is an additional obligation to education which is not to automatically commercialize it.

GC: The European Commission launched an initiative to fight youth unemployment: the Youth Guarantee plan. Will this change anything?

O: It is good to have it, and it is important to promote youth employment. However it is evident that it is just a pilot project. The Member States should solve youth unemployment by providing more programs and different policies. What we need is a demand-oriented policy that motivates companies for more production, which in turn triggers higher employment. We need to change the paradigm and have more expansive policies implying higher real wages, more State subsidies and more investments in infrastructures.


GC: So should we, as young people, take any job we can get, regardless of our long-term interests?

O: In the countries where there is a high rate of unemployment the situation is terrible, you can’t do what you want and you can’t even do a job you don’t want. Some people talk about a lost generation. However, I would always say never give up on your dreams. Fight for your rights, engage politically, make it clear that you won’t accept this situation.

GC: Thank you.

Interview and photos: Anna Solé, Cinzia Dellagiacoma, Markus Kowalski