Precarious youth : The emergence of the un(der)employed in the 2010s

Submission to Academia Letters
Touraj Eghtesad, European School of Strasbourg

Recent market reforms impulsed by public actors and new forms of belonging resulting from global consumption patterns (internet…) have curbed the nationstate’s traditional role as a source of belonging and material welfare for young men and women. Within this context, un(der)employed youth constitute a global precarious generation who is increasingly capable of expressing its agency on the one hand, while being limited by lacking opportunities and the need for financial security on the other. This paradox becomes particularly apparent during empirical studies of young people in moments of rapid social change. Possibilities seem unlimited in the global era, however there seem to be fewer safety nets within neoliberal frameworks for young people to have the material basis upon which to pursue their preferred options independently.

The total number of unemployed people in the world was estimated at 1.1 billion in 2015. At the height of the economic crisis a decade ago, there were estimated youth unemployment rates of around 55% in countries such as Spain and Greece; around 25% in long developed nations such as France and the United Kingdom; and alarmingly high rates in many sub-Saharan African countries. Unemployment rates are also hard to estimate in countries where people work mostly in the informal economy, and they do not take into account people who are underemployed (part-time, intermittent or temporary work). Such phenomena have been accentuated by the recent Covid crisis in a variety of countries throughout the world.

Alcinda Honwana argues that young people around the world are in ‘waithood’, a period of suspension between youth and adulthood whereby un(der)employed youth are unable to become recognised as fully fledged citizens (or adults). They lack a steady and sufficient income that would allow them to become financially independent, get married and start a family. In many countries around the world, however, accessing adulthood is dependent on marriage and household formation. The New York Times recently produced a series of articles arguing that millennials are redefining adulthood because they lack economic opportunities and are disillusioned with the institution of marriage and the existing job market. Middle-class youth often prioritise daily leisure over longterm professional planning because they either lack stability or do not regard it highly.

The most recent technological revolution has opened up the sphere of existing possibilities for un(der)employed youth. The internet facilitates access to capital, freelance opportunities, learning new skills and networking using dynamic tools such as MOOCs and social media. The long-term effect of these technological changes on the way societies conduct politics, learn and organise the economy will be significant, as online initiatives grow exponentially. Along with other forms of shared cultural consumption, they contribute to young people’s growing sense of awareness and existence within a wider world

Young men and women are now also freer to travel around the world. The sharp decline in transport costs have encouraged millions of un(der)employed youth to travel elsewhere in pursuit of jobs and exciting new lifestyles. The Covid crisis has somewhat limited this phenomenon, although remote work linked with lockdown measures have favoured movement for the most privileged young people from developed countries. In doing so, travelling youth encounter new forms of social organisation and become accustomed to cultural diversity, providing new outlooks on their own lives. Travelling to new places also raises awareness about the existence of other un(der)employed youth who migrate for similar purposes, a sort of new ‘class consciousness’ in-the-making that can be observed on public squares, in local neighbourhoods, in workplaces and more.

Meanwhile, neoliberal economic reforms such as reduction in public spending and emphasising labor flexibility have limited young people’s ability to become independent and plan ahead. Public sector jobs were once widely available in many European and African countries. They were guaranteed for life and enabled young men and women to have the material stability required to start planning their futures. Permanent contracts in the public and private sector are being progressively replaced by temporary or part-time work. Prevailing economic paradigms seek to optimise wage distribution through measures such as zero hour contracts and consultancies instead of long-term employment. The Covid crisis showed the limits of such measures which create desperate situations for young people, as young people massively invested food banks in some European countries for example.

Welfare benefits are also getting slashed in an attempt to create a more ‘responsible’ body of citizens (c.f. France’s most recent reform of unemployment benefits) leaving few opportunities for young people to pursue personal projects and long-term professional ventures. In the absence of work, the flexible individual must constantly renew his or her skill set and obtain new experiences that can be sold on the job market. There is a large demand for qualified workers in the private sector that remains void, despite an increased focus of public and non-profit institutions on professional training. The ability to become flexible and more employable, however, is highly dependent on a person’s wealth, education and social network (although the opportunities offered by the internet lessen the latter two). Youth from poor or lower middle-class families are less capable to commit to learning skills because they often need immediate revenue streams.

This precarious generation must focus on short-term strategies to live according to an acceptable standard of living. Many of them get by using creative tactics that allow them to assert their independence and compromise, despite a strong lack of opportunities. What seems to emerge is that social and economic capital are a key determinant in the freedom of these young people’s choices. During my 2014 field research in Tunisia, I met with Walid, 31, who speaks four languages and had recently lost his job in a hotel on the Tunisian coast. Despite wanting to work in a hotel again, he roamed the streets of Tunis selling old cellular phones and finding tourists who could teach him about their country and language and give him some money.

After completing her Law degree, Maria, 28, who I met in Barcelona during field research conducted in 2015, had spent the past five years away from her hometown of Barcelona where jobs had become scarce. She moved from one European country to another every few months looking for jobs in catering or cleaning, despite wanting to be a lawyer. Charles, 29, found it difficult to get a job with a phD in Physics from French university. In 2019, after a year doing part-time work in the city, he had decided to live precariously in an environmentalist commune to avoid working a full-time job for minimum-wage doing something he did not believe in.

Karim, 31, went back to university after having struggled to get a stable job with responsibilities and decent pay despite having five years of on-and-off experience in the pharmaceutical industry. Considering he only had a Bachelor’s degree, he decided to go back to school and study management.

While these cases may seem isolated, they both highlight a lack of longterm opportunities and the continuous negotiations between young people’s expectations and their actions to find work. The urgency of resolving youth unemployment cannot be understated. Many academic studies and policy-makers acknowledge the need to address this issue as a security threat to existing societal arrangements. This precarious generation feels increasingly alienated from political decision-making processes and economic opportunities, highlighted by low youth voter turnouts in new and old democracies alike. Un(der)employed youth were prominent in informal social movements such as the Occupy movement (often due to student debt), the Arab Spring (the symbol of Mohammed Bouazizi in Tunisia), uprisings all over Africa in 2010-2011, the 15-M movement in Spain, the Gilets Jaunes in France (2018-2019), etc.

Their marginalisation from the existing political and social order leads them to look for meaning in new and creative ways; sometimes revolutionary, sometimes reactionary. Honwana argues that waithood is gradually replacing conventional adulthood. The issue of youth unemployment has become a pressing policy matter (EU 2020 Priorities) and its resolution will be of great significance to the maintenance of the existing social contract. While competition becomes fierce for the few existing jobs, young people’s enhanced sense of freedom in the face of difficulty will enable many of them to create new things in the shell of the old. We are living in a transition period where the new has yet to be defined, as possibilities seem endless but short-term economic opportunities remain scarce. Public sector actors will be key in the future to create new opportunities for young people to deploy their skills without short-term profit considerations. In the meantime, the 2010s have marked their affirmation as global actors. This global “precariat” is certainly not complacent; it is actively shaping its future society in immeasurable ways.