Temporary employment is permanent in Europe, especially for the young.
A recent article by Liz Alderman for the New York Times rips the veil on an increasingly worrisome trend that, given the general economic landscape, seems to be here to stay.
Her article paints a picture of deep pain and uncertainty: Alessandra Sisco, an Italian, is a medical doctor who treats patients for cancer – but only on separate contracts that last three months each. Charles Terraz from Lyon, France, has a master’s degree in human resources and is just one of that 80 percent of new hires that in his country can’t get a permanent job. Joost Minaar, a Dutch scientist, has survived on an endless stream of one-year-long renewable contracts abroad.
The main reason young people cannot find full-time, gainful employment has been known nearly as long as the problem has been ingrained in the European economic culture: artificially high wages and benefits for workers, inflexible labor regulations, steep taxes on profits and productivity, and an outlook that generally discourages entrepreneurship. Employing someone for a temporary job is less onerous for an employer, even if this means doing without the most skilled labor for a given position.
What’s wrong with Europe? Seemingly everything. Some will object that the problem is restricted to the labor market. I agree; as I said, everything is wrong with Europe. The labor market is the salt of a society. If citizens cannot find regular jobs, or young people can’t find employment for more than a few months, how can a people endure?
The impact on young people is not just economic but prevents them from engaging in the kinds of activities that allow them to launch into adult independence. With only short-term job prospects, the young aren’t able to make long-term commitments, like signing a mortgage to buy a house or having a stable source of income to raise a family. As The Telegraph of London documented, the young are also poorer in absolute terms. By the time they turn 30, Millennial men earn £12,500 (€14,750, or $15,500 U.S.) less than the previous generation. This compels the young to depend on their parents for longer and longer periods of time. In Europe, “young” is becoming a label less tied to an age than a social condition: The young are those who still live with their parents, even if they are in their mid- to late-thirties.
The pain caused by this situation fuels a desire for the state to do more. Lamenting the temporary job market leaves many youth yearning for a pool of permanent, public sector jobs. The case study is Italy and its social myth of “posto fisso” (a “fixed place” of politically guaranteed stability). For decades, parents dreamed of getting their children some public employment as soon as possible after school: the post office, any level of bureaucratic public administration, or even the police department or a teaching assignment in a public school. In Italy, the alternative is a job in the bank sector. Legions of graduate Italians in a full range of subjects have for years ended up as bank clerks (with not even one single T.S. Eliot among them). The complex labor laws of the country and the irresistible power of labor unions as a result of the informal but strong power that the Communist Left has always exerted on the country made it virtually impossible to fire workers. And the easy availability of arms crystallized the Italian labor market for ages as a contest between public employees and bank tellers.
In time, it became clear that this paralysis had to go. But just when government officials finally started thinking in terms of deep labor reform, the global economic crisis hit. Thus, people were almost catapulted overnight from life-long jobs to the treacherous jungle of insecurity. As a result, a growing number of people, especially the young, started to feel nostalgia for the old days in which all was quiet – but only because it was idle, secure because it was motionless, and painless since it was frozen in a state of suspended animation. One heard the Italian saying, “It was better when it was worse” – a sentiment traceable to the idea that, when Benito Mussolini was in power, at least the trains ran on time. A similar longing for the awful past is sometimes seen in political rallies in the former Communist Europe and Soviet Russia – a desire for a mythical past that endures among those who never lived through either the fascist or the Marxist era.
The real dilemma is how to bridge the gap between “posto fisso” and stable, private-sector jobs. Thus far, Europe has been incapable of building stability.
As usual, people in this confused time blame it on capitalism, but what we have here is not capitalism at all. It’s a giant bubble of crushing labor regulations and welfare state policies incapable of reforming itself. The global financial crisis has made already risk-averse firms decide to seek their fortunes off government contracts, rather than serving the private sector. Greater investment is needed, but it will not be forthcoming as long as government policy discourages hiring full-time workers.
Those who blame this situation on capitalism suggest that without that massive labor and safety net interventions, life would become a “race to the bottom,” but the reality is that their policies have already resulted in an impoverished generation: young people, shorn of the ability to use their talents to their fullest extent, are obliged to take less – and less secure – jobs just to survive.
The human toll is large and cross-generational. In 1977, punk rock-inspired youngsters camped out in the streets of London while embracing the slogan, “No future” – but that time is now. Young people know no serious commitment in life. With rising rates of divorce and cohabitation, increasingly no adult has shown them what a real commitment is. The demographic winter and the rapidly growing number of elderly people dependent on their taxes for support contribute to their troubles.
A liberation movement for the labor market is what we need. But the sad news is that, surveying the next wave of European elections slated for the forthcoming months, there seems to be no one applying for the job.