At 29, Samira Ahidar just got a permanent job, her first. Ms. Ahidar, who still lives with her parents, dropped out of school a decade ago and her adult life has been dominated by the search for work. She would still be jobless if it were not for a job-creation scheme that employs her at an elderly care home.
“I’ve no idea where I’ll be in five years time,” said Ms. Ahidar, dressed in an orange apron that comes with her new role. “It is so hard to find work, you feel like giving up.”
Ms. Ahidar does not live in Greece or Spain, countries where as many as one in two young people are without work, but in the wealthy Belgian port city of Antwerp. With its stunning 16th-century Gothic houses, the city is a world centre for diamond trading and boasts a cutting-edge fashion industry. It also has a fast-growing number of unemployed twentysomethings.
Youth unemployment is notoriously a problem of southern Europe. What is less obvious, as the euro zone slips into its second recession in just three years, is the scale of the problem in the north.
A quarter of 18-to-25-year-olds in Antwerp are now jobless, up from 19 per cent in 2008. In some parts of Brussels, the Belgian and European capital and the third-richest region in the European Union, youth joblessness is as high as 40 per cent. In France, Britain and Sweden, as many as one in five young people are now out of work.
The rising pool of jobless youth is fuelling class and racial divisions, according to youth workers and some politicians. Many experts blame joblessness for outbursts of violence such as last year’s riots in Britain.
And today’s problem could have a big impact on Europe’s future. The continent’s labour force is set to decline by 50 million people over the next 50 years, according to the World Bank. Skilled, experienced new workers will be needed to support an aging population.
“Young people are being marginalized with major economic consequences,” said Francois Robert, a social worker at the employment institute Bruxelles Formation. “The problems people are talking about in Greece and Spain are right outside the European Commission’s door in Brussels.”
Southern Europe has long struggled with youth unemployment. In Italy, the rate has not dropped below 20 per cent in more than two decades, according to the EU’s statistics office Eurostat. In Spain, the rate has averaged 30 per cent since 1990.
By contrast, in the United States, youth unemployment is 17 per cent, up from just under 12 per cent in December 2007. The European exception is Germany, where only 8 per cent of young people aged 15 to 24 are out of work, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).
It is normal that unemployment goes up in tough times. But worryingly, some of the problems, even in northern Europe, are structural. In Belgium as elsewhere, these include a lack of skills, discrimination and the cushion of welfare payments that approach the minimum wage.
Belgium has an open, high-tech economy and the world’s 12th highest per-capita income, but “the education we offer is not always in tune with what the market needs,” says Pascal Smet, education minister for Flanders, the northern, Dutch-speaking half of the country.
The shortcomings have important consequences. The gap between young people’s skills and those required by employers means Belgium has one of the highest percentages in the industrialized world of young people who are not in employment, education or training, according to the OECD.
It’s not as if there are no jobs. Flanders, which is home to Antwerp, has a trade-friendly location between Germany’s industrial belt and the North Sea that attracts multinationals. In 2011, the number of jobs on offer in the region – excluding temporary agency work – rose 17 per cent from the year before. But there were only about three job seekers for every vacancy in March, according to the latest data available – the lowest level since 2000.