Soon, my EVS is coming to an end. The mid-term seminar offered me the opportunity to reflect upon the past months and start thinking about the future ahead. Having met many different young Europeans through the EVS and outside, I realise that we have a lot in common: The thoughts and worries of an insecure future.
It starts with home or housing: Many young Europeans cannot imagine living with their family in their early twenties, usually around the time one goes to university. Sharing flats or houses is an affordable option for students but in many major cities there are the same problems: With a lot of people moving to cities, there is more demand than supply, so rents are rising (with landlords and private developers cashing in), the process of getting accepted into a flatshare or renting a place is becoming extremely competitive and selective, and poorer people are being pushed out into the peripheries. This process is called ‘gentrification’ and describes the displacement of lower-class workers by middle-class people. This has been seen in many major European cities, such as London, Paris, Barcelona and Berlin. In Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg, a borough in Berlin, rents have risen in the past decade by 80% but wages have remained stagnant. Urban economic development has both its positives and negatives, and many argue that gentrification is not something new: It is part of this cycle of development. And when when real-estate investors, private developers and land speculators profit most from this ‘regeneration’ rather than the local community and existing neighbourhood, the next step of gentrification is underway: The things that have made a place attractive will be eventually displaced or removed.
Then comes education and job prospects: Talking to other EVS volunteers here in Germany, I found out that many chose Germany in order to stay in Germany, because of the educational opportunities and the job opportunities. It made me realise that the unemployment rate in Germany is relatively low compared to other European countries and it is easy to find a job here if you know some German and take on a low-skilled job. Looking at the youth unemployment rate, Germany ranks actually the lowest with 6.4%, whereas the EU average is 16.7%. The countries with the lowest youth unemployment are (in descending order): Germany, Czech Republic, Netherlands, Austria. The countries with the highest are: Greece, Spain, Italy and Cyprus.
There were some volunteers who had university degrees in ‘respected’ subjects but could not find a job in their own country so they decided to do an EVS, which was sometimes totally unrelated to their subject. This also brings up the topic of university education: A report by the OECD shows that the median age of university graduates in Europe is 24.7, whereas the time taken to complete a degree is on average 4.2 years. That means that young people usually start university at the age of 20. The number of new entrants aged above 30 has remained low with only 10% on average. There is a lot of pressure on young adults, who have spent most of their lives in classrooms to choose a career path at such a young age. But the prospect of being a student is also alluring, alongside the belief that a degree was a requirement to get a ‘decent job’, or any job at all. So alongside long studies in the university library, one has to chase unpaid internships to get ‘practical experiences’ - or do the EVS. So what is the university degree for again?
Then there is also security: Whether that is financial or political security, many young Europeans move out of their own country to find a job, sometimes totally unrelated to their profession and often low-skilled jobs. I met one volunteer who had several degrees and worked for an EVS project doing ‘basic’ tasks but she preferred it because it meant she could escape from her family ties and the fascist, repressive regime she grew up in. But there is currently a trend in the rise of far-right political sentiments in many European countries which have left many shocked and numbed. It is therefore even more so important to use the EVS as a platform for discussions, sharing of experiences, hopes and worries and using these exchanges to come together in solidarity and as engaged citizens. The freedom of movement and work within EU members states has seen large waves migration flows since 2000. In 2008, the most mobile were Romanians, Poles and Germans. Immigrants were on average younger than the median age of the population of the country of their destination. A report by the EU on migration published some interesting findings: Many highly qualified migrants work in jobs below their educational qualifications. Many migrants also have a lower level of income and are often more at risk of poverty and social exclusion, particularly those from non-EU states.
So, for many of us volunteers midway through, the questions regarding the remaining EVS months are: Shall I go back? Or where will I move to? Can I stay? Can I afford it? What job can I take? Am I now more employable? What about all these ‘adult’ things such as insurance and taxes? Can I find a well-paid job or do I have to struggle? Can I live a happy life?
‘Back then, everything was easier…’
I actually don’t like to use that phrase because life back then was indeed difficult for many people, it just probably did not make it to the news or history books. Actually, there are many good things that ‘millennials’ have grown up with (and I say in advance, these good things - like a coin - have two sides of course): Technology, global communication and access to information: Mobile phones, internet, Google, the rise of budget airlines, more travelling - on the downside: Information overload, instant gratification, alienation, no longer feeling the need to socialise (or be social at all). One does not even need to leave the house anymore in order to survive.
I think of my parents, both migrants: When they moved to Europe almost thirty years ago, they did not have university degrees, yet my mother got a steady job in the public sector with a good pension and is still in the same job after almost 25 years. My father was not so lucky as his diploma was not recognised to ‘Western standards’ but he was able to receive social welfare and eventually got a job in the public sector as well. It was easy for them to find affordable accommodation and they are now in a rent-protected scheme. The question is: Are they happy?
Let us to look at what has changed in the past twenty years on a global level. I think it helps to put some problems and thoughts in different perspectives and viewpoints. The United Nations Population Fund (UNPFA) published some interesting facts. I quoted some facts verbatim. The world has now the largest population of young people. Young people aged between 10-24 make up 28% of the world population in 2010. Extreme poverty has decreased by almost 50%, but economic inequality is growing. 8% of the world population owns 82% of global wealth, while billions of people continue to live in extreme poverty, with no access to social protections, meaningful work, public health or educational services. The world population has risen from 5.66 billion to 7.24 billion in twenty years. Child deaths fell nearly by half. Life expectancy has increased by 5.2 years. More children are going to school, especially girls. More than half of the world’s people live in cities or towns, but much of this growth is happening in slums. There are more people migrating now these days. And a record number of people are displaced in their own country by armed conflict, with women and girls being affected most. By 2012, 28.8 million people were internally displaced, and another 15.4 million people were forced to flee their countries as refugees. The UN urges that human rights, and especially girls’ and women’s rights, should be one of the highest priorities for global development.
There are more young people in this world - and if we are lucky enough to be born in a safe country with freedom of expression, then we not only have the means, but perhaps even the responsibility to ensure that the world becomes a more equal place for all, holding governments and other people in power to account, upholding our rights as human beings that we all should have access to social protections, meaningful work, public health and educational services.