It wasn't the effigies of Angela Merkel going up in flames across Europe that finally got to the Germans. No, the cruellest cut was the country's dismal 21st-place finish in last month's Eurovision song contest. Germany's entry, Cascada, got zero points from 34 of the 39 countries that voted.
"There's obviously a political situation to keep in mind," a commentator for Germany's public broadcaster said after the votes were tabulated. "We all have to be aware that it wasn't just Cascada up there on stage, but all of Germany."
Indeed, the Eurovision results are probably a fairly accurate gauge of how most young Europeans feel about Germany these days. After all, young people have been the biggest losers as austerity sweeps the continent. And no one has pushed the austerity agenda harder than the German Chancellor and Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble.
So it may have been no coincidence that Mr. Schäuble was in Paris last week to unveil a "New Deal" for Europe's youth, under which the European Investment Bank will allot €6-billion to small businesses across the continent to hire young workers. Thousands of Spanish, Portuguese and French young people will be enrolled in German apprenticeship programs, while free flights and language training will be offered to thousands more who move across borders for work.
"We must win this battle against youth unemployment," Mr. Schäuble warned, "or we will lose the battle to hold Europe together."
From the suburbs of Stockholm to the streets of Athens, however, the battle is being lost one riot at a time. The unrest that recently rocked Sweden reflects a youth unemployment rate of almost 25 per cent, with young immigrants hit hardest. The jobless rate among those under 25 stands at 60 per cent in Greece. It's 56 per cent in Spain and above 40 per cent in Portugal and Italy.
And that's only half the story, since unemployment rates take into account only those young people who are seeking work. Millions more have simply stopped looking, while two-thirds of those with jobs have been reduced to part-time work or temporary contracts.
While Europe is the epicentre of youth unemployment, the crisis is a global one. In Canada, more than 411,000 young people under 25 were out of work in April, pushing the youth unemployment rate up to 14.5 per cent. Among Canadians between the ages of 25 and 54, the jobless rate stood at 5.8 per cent.
An even grimmer figure is the 904,000 Canadians under 30 found by Statistics Canada not to be in employment, education or training in 2011. Last week, the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development pegged the number of these so-called NEETs at 22 million in the developed world. It called for member countries to do something fast – otherwise, these discouraged young people could become permanently unemployable.
The International Labour Organization issued a similar clarion call last month in a report titled A Generation At Risk. With 73 million unemployed young people around the globe, and another 200 million or so NEETs, the ILO warned that the "scarring" caused by the underutilization of young talent will have lasting economic and political consequences.
"Perhaps the most important scarring is in terms of the current youth generation's distrust in the socio-economic and political systems," the organization noted.
That is already evident in Europe, North Africa and the Middle East. The signs are subtler in North America, but the problem is no less important. Studies show that young people whose careers start fitfully experience long-term economic disadvantages and disengagement. For all our current fixation on income inequality, perhaps we need to worry a bit more about intergenerational inequality.
Unions need to rethink contracts that overprotect entrenched workers and discourage employers from hiring new recruits. Employers that complain about skills mismatches or shortages need to spend more, with government help, on training young Canadians and less on scouring the globe for temporary foreign workers. Educators need to redesign curriculums for the economy of the 21st century.
Linking education and employment is perhaps the most critical reform. Career preparation cannot be left to high-school guidance counsellors or university placement officers alone. It must inform the way young people are educated from start to finish, without sacrificing any of the socialization and self-actualization benefits schools procure.
German high-schoolers are no less well-rounded because 40 per cent of them become apprentices. But they are a lot more employable. Germany's youth unemployment rate is an enviable 7.5 per cent.