May 15, 2013 · 0 Comments
By Costas Panayotakis:
A headline on the front page of the Business section of the New York Times recently caught my attention. Announcing a story in the inside pages, it read “Europe tries to address staggering unemployment among the young.” (i) Since the usual practice of European politicians these days is to compete over who can implement the most sadistic and most unemployment-inducing austerity measures in their country, I eagerly turned to the page in question. Needless to say, the contents of the story did not rise up to its promise.
Indeed, what the story amounted to was an overview of the catastrophic levels of youth unemployment in much of Europe as well as the fact that politicians are paying lip service to the gravity of the issue. As the article points out, the unemployment rate for European workers between 15 and 24 years old has climbed up to 24%, while hovering around 60% for countries, like Greece and Spain, which have been hit especially hard by European politicians’ “valiant” attempts to resolve the crisis and reduce unemployment. Faced with these levels of unemployment, European policy makers assure everyone about their concern regarding the dismal state of affairs that is developing under their watch, while also expressing their worry over the effects that this state of affairs is having on the faith of European citizens in the European project. Incidentally, this worry is certainly justified, given the fact that, as a poll by the Pew Research Center has just found, the social and economic fallout from the euro crisis is already undercutting European citizens’ support for the European Union. (ii)
In any case, the article’s main piece of evidence regarding Europe’s effort to address youth unemployment is a proposal, published in the online version of a German newspaper, to subsidize private companies that hire young workers. It is only towards the very end of the article, and after paragraph after paragraph of European politicians lamenting the gravity of the youth unemployment problem, that a patient reader finds out that the European efforts that this article is supposed to be about, add up to very little. As the authors of the article, Jack Ewing and Melissa Eddy, are forced to admit, even if such a proposal were to be adopted, it wouldn’t make much of a difference for two reasons. First, the amount of money envisaged (6 billion euros or $7.8 billion) is too paltry to make a difference. Secondly, such a program would not touch the main source of youth unemployment, which as the article (despite its obligatory neoliberal bromides regarding the obstacles to employment that “inflexible labor regulations” supposedly pose) is forced to admit, is the deep economic crisis that has descended upon much of the continent. And as readers of this column are aware, nothing fuels this crisis as intensely as the austerity policies pushed through by the very politicians who now profess their concern over youth unemployment.
It is interesting, therefore, to ponder for a second the ideological function of this story. Its self-contradictoriness (consisting in the fact that the so-called efforts to address youth unemployment hardly deserve the name, as the authors themselves end up admitting) is not innocent. Given the fact that most of the readers of the NYT’s business pages are probably too busy to read an article on European policies regarding youth unemployment from beginning to end, it is reasonable to assume that most of them will not even get to the part of the article that discloses that what they are reading is really a story about nothing. Instead, they are likely to get the impression that European politicians have recognized Europe’s youth unemployment problem and are starting to do something about it. Thus, an ideological reversal is produced whereby the same political elites that are robbing young Europeans of their future emerge as beneficent figures that are doing all they can to make things right. So the story about nothing is about something after all: false reassurances for those watching the European tragedy from afar and false promises for those unlucky enough to be its victims.
Costas Panayotakis is Associate Professor of Sociology at CUNY’s New York City College of Technology and author of Remaking Scarcity: From Capitalist Inefficiency to Economic Democracy (Pluto Press).
(i) See Jack Ewing and Melissa Eddy, ‘European Leaders Grapple With Youth Unemployment,’ http://www.nytimes.com/2013/05/14/business/global/14iht-youthjobs14.html?pagewanted=all&pagewanted=print .
(ii) See James Kanter, ‘Grind of Euro Crisis Wears Down Support for Union, Poll Finds,” http://www.nytimes.com/2013/05/14/business/global/poll-shows-european-union-loses-favor-in-europe.html?ref=business&_r=0 .