It’s up to EU leaders to fix youth unemployment – not young people

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The plight of young people across Europe is well-recorded: five million of us are without jobs and despite the improvement of some European economies, young people are being left out of the recovery.

Governments and EU leaders must not, however, pass the buck of solving the youth unemployment crisis to young people themselves, or to the organisations providing youth work – a term which covers a broad range of activities by, with and for young people combining fun and non-formal education.

It is not their responsibility to shape young people for the jobs market. There is a risk that decision and policy makers will misuse youth work as a panacea for the youth employment crisis.

This topic was discussed this spring when almost 500 young people, youth workers, academics and policy makers got together for the 2nd European Youth Work Convention in Brussels to discuss and debate policy, practices and the future of youth work in Europe.

The Convention, which brought together the top experts in the youth work field, issued a declaration, a call to action which those in power must heed, or lose the faith and support of what could become a lost generation devastated by the economic and financial crisis.

Many of the discussions over the course of the Convention were about making sure that the impact of youth work, both on individuals and on wider society is recognised, by governments at all levels, but also by society.

This of course leads to a discussion about how to ’sell’ youth work to a wider audience, and on how to ensure that funders appreciate the enormous benefits that youth works brings.

Whilst this is an important discussion, it can at the same time lead to problematic arguments. The European Youth Forum, representing youth organisations in Europe (most of them carrying out youth work), knows that being involved in youth work and youth organisations is not just about young people having fun and being kept off the streets.

It is about so much more: it’s about building relationships, about putting young people and their abilities, interests and needs at the centre.

We know that, through youth work, young people learn skills that help to prepare them for the world. Skills such as building relationships, leadership, confidence and working in a team, which are all highly valued by potential employers as key skills that help young people enter the labour market.

Recognising the impact of youth work

During the 2nd European Youth Work Convention, we heard many stories about youth work and had many debates about its purpose and how to have its impact better recognised.

What came out very strongly is that through youth work young people feel that they are part of something bigger than their own lives, while gaining a sense of social responsibility, community and active citizenship. Policy makers should support youth work to reach out to more young people and to extend its benefits to a larger part of our society.

For all these reasons, I strongly refute the rhetoric that youth organisations and youth workers should be churning out young workers ready for the labour market. Leaders and policy makers need to urgently look beyond young people to find the solution. They must look to the wider macroeconomic situation and the creation of jobs.

Whilst EU initiatives such as the Youth Employment Initiative have the potential to make things better for young people, we are yet to see a big impact. In order to really make a difference, there must be political momentum, ambition and concrete action. We must change the rhetoric of the skills mismatch – that young people don’t have jobs because they don’t have the rights skills. Whilst this true to an extent, it is really not the root cause of the youth unemployment crisis we are in now.

Before looking at the skills young people have to get jobs, there first needs to be the economic climate of growth, that creates a sustainable market with quality jobs for young people!

The strong message that came from the European Youth Work Convention and from the declaration published at its conclusion was that youth work is not a luxury; it is essential and a failure to invest in it is an abdication of our duty to the next generation.

Whilst youth work does have the potential to deal with huge problems that we as young people face, such as unemployment and social exclusion and even radicalisation, it’s not a sticking plaster for such problems, which must be tackled by concerted action.

Youth work should be invested in on its own merit, not as a means of shirking the responsibility of tackling the pressing issues of our time.