The best hope for the youth of France, according to a recent New York Times op-ed, is, well, to get out of France. Youth unemployment in France is running at 26%. No wonder some might believe their best opportunity lies elsewhere, including their old colony of New France (Quebec).
But this punishing level of unemployment is only slightly worse than the EU-wide rate of 23%. Countries like Spain and Greece have astonishing youth unemployment rates of nearly 60%. What does the future of these countries’ youth look like? Or their adults for that matter? Maybe it’s a future on another continent, including former colonies.
Young people in France are starting to test the economic waters in Quebec. Fairly recently Spain became a place immigrants came to for opportunity, becoming one of the primary draws for immigrants for both Africa and Latin America. But now Spain is again seeing people leave for greener pastures in Latin America. It’s a similar case in Portugal, where tens of thousands of Portuguese natives have moved to their former colony of Angola in recent years.
In 1968 Paul Ehrlich’s doomsday tome The Population Bomb predicted mass starvation and civilizational collapse in much of the world due to overpopulation. But the more serious problem – particularly in traditionally higher-income countries – today is actually too few, not too many new people. The pivot to seeing this as the problem has come through something very basic: pension math. Across the developed world, public pension systems built on the assumption of continued population growth are now facing an actuarial day of reckoning as the bills come due while birth rates have plummeted.
A society needs a total fertility rate – that is, the average number of children born to each woman – of 2.1 just to maintain its population without immigration. Some European countries like France (2.03) and the UK (1.98) are in reasonably good shape, but they are the exception. The total fertility rate in Greece is 1.43, in Germany 1.36, in Spain 1.36, in Portugal 1.30, and in Poland 1.30. Much of southern and central Europe hovers near the so-called “lowest-low” rate of 1.3 in which the population is naturally being cut in half every 45 years.
Simple birth rates alone have caused some to posit a societal going out of business sale in Europe. However, just as extrapolation of high population growth rates in the past led to wildly alarmist claims that proved false, so today we must be careful about not proclaiming Europe is doomed. But with the population on tap to be halved every generation, the runway to turn things around is difficult to conjure. And while we’ve seen many countries make the shift from high to low birth rates, there isn’t a huge track record of success in the other direction.
It’s against this backdrop that Europe’s youth unemployment crisis must be seen. Not only are Europe’s young facing short term pain from economic crisis, they also face the long term prospect of being a small population cohort that has to spend their entire working lives (when they eventually find jobs) paying for previous generations’ lavish retirement benefits never properly funded. Along with this, they are the ones who will likely bear the brunt of reduced pension payouts for themselves while the current and nearly retired are fully protected from cuts. This is on top of the massive official public sector debts that have been accrued, along with many years of pain from IMF and EU mandated austerity in a number of countries. Contracting demographics is like a “force multiplier” for unfunded liabilities, and this generation may never achieve the affluence – and buying power – of their parents.
Immigration has been heralded as a solution to demographic issues, but this seems unlikely to bail Europe out. Unlike the US or Canada, European nation-states are built primarily on ethnic identities that make integration difficult no matter how progressive the policies. Sclerotic economies and regulations that reward incumbents and large “national champion” firms while punishing entrepreneurs – immigrants are disproportionately entrepreneurial – don’t help. With Europe having a large percentage of unassimilated and unemployed immigrants along with high native born unemployment rates, there has been social unrest all around. Immigrants have rioted, even in unlikely locales like Stockholm, while there has been an alarming rise in far right extremist groups among the native born. Unlike immigrant-friendly North America, immigration has been as much problem as solution in Europe.
So what exactly is in it for a young person in Greece, Italy, Spain, or apparently even France to stay home? Increasingly not a lot other than avoiding the difficulty involved in moving to another country far from home where the culture, language, etc. are different. That’s a daunting challenge to be sure, especially in a continent where people are very rooted, not just in their country, but often their town, though this can be reduced if they move to a former colony. But it appears we are seeing early signs of migration out of some European countries.
It’s way too early to say what this will turn into, but if an exodus of the youth does take hold, it isn’t hard to imagine how this could hit a catastrophic tipping point in some countries. Facing unemployment, unfunded pensions, massive debts, austerity, and social unrest – as well as the prospect of getting stuck as the bag holder for all this – it isn’t hard to imagine a flight for the exits among the young. This would be like a demographic Lehman Brothers. Once confidence is lost, there’s a run on the bank, or in this case, a run for the exit.
This is far from assured, of course. But it’s not an inconceivable outcome if things stay on the present course. Solving the nexus of issues around growth-euro-debt is critical for Europe, as is cracking the code on immigration. It seems unlikely birth rates will improve until these items are solved first. In the meantime, the US and Canada should be revisiting their own immigration laws to make sure they are poised to respond to – and benefit from – another wave of European economic refugees heads their direction.
Photo by funtik.cat (Dasha Bondareva).