Opinions European elections

What Europe Can Do for Young People

, by Pietro Galeone
Between 1985 and 2019, the wages of older workers grew almost twice as fast as those of younger workers. The EU has many plans to rectify these gaps, but much remains to be done

According to an ISTAT report retrieved by the Corriere Fiorentino, a blue-collar worker in 1960 with an average salary of 47,000 lire spent about 25% of their salary to pay rent in Florence. Today, that figure has risen considerably, often exceeding two-thirds of younger people’s salaries. It goes without saying that in a city like Milan, it is almost impossible to find even a studio apartment for less than €700 per month, although more than half of young people’s monthly salaries do not exceed €1,000. 

Of course, there is an issue of rising rents in general – especially in large cities – but at the same time there is the issue of entry-level pay for young people, which has grown less and less in recent decades. Suffice it to say that, between 1985 and 2019, the age wage gap (i.e. the difference between the salaries of employees under 35 and those over 55) increased by 96%. The salaries of older workers have practically grown almost twice as much as those of young people. 

To address these issues, the European Union in recent years has put programs in place specifically designated for young people. The most famous of these are the Youth Guarantee – which offers opportunities for guidance, training and job placement for young people – and the Erasmus program, which allows young Europeans to go abroad for a study or professional experience.  

In addition to these are other programs that are perhaps less well-known, but just as important. For example, the mission of Child Guarantee is fundamental in reducing the risk of poverty for 18 million children in jeopardy of social exclusion. The EU aims to ensure more and equal opportunities for young Europeans through measures dedicated to healthcare protection, social inclusion and reduction of educational poverty – in an attempt to break the vicious cycle where generational poverty leads to future convictions for minors. 

Through its European Pillar of Social Rights, the outgoing Commission has devoted much attention to social issues, as part of a framework that includes the topic of generational equity.  

The years 2022 and 2023 have also been dedicated to young people; the former was designated the European Year of Youth and the latter, the European Year of Skills. Regarding skill enhancement specifically, the EU has allocated large sums of structural and extraordinary funds towards Next Generation EU, because acquiring skills not only enriches individuals' personal backgrounds, but also increases their employability and productivity for the benefit of the entire economic system.  

However, productivity must be a two-way street and go hand in hand with wage increases for workers. On the one hand, productivity must translate into trickle-down benefits for workers so that it is sustainable in the long run; on the other, higher wages can in turn stimulate productivity, attracting talent from abroad and activating an upstanding system. However, the system of today works in the opposite direction, pushing many young people to emigrate in search of higher wages and better career prospects.  

In 2022, young people under 35 accounted for 44% of Italian expatriates (but it is estimated that there are many more, including those who maintain formal residence in Italy).5 

A fragile social balance  

Thanks to a growing labor market, and partly thanks to the efforts of the Commission and the Youth Guarantee, youth employment figures in Italy are improving. The rate of NEETs (Youth Not in Education, Employment, or Training) is at an all-time low since the indicator was first put in use, i.e. before the 2008 crisis. 

There is still a lot to be done and the data – especially on wages and quality of education as already mentioned – is alarming, but the trend is improving. These are areas on which the EU can intervene and is intervening: think of the minimum wage directive approved in 2022, or the recent legislation on platform work and artificial intelligence – matters that will increasingly impact young workers.  

These are crucial issues on which the future of the EU depends, but – perhaps more pressingly – on which the European Parliament elections depend. The generational issue is not just an issue of the age wage gap or wealth distribution; it is a sustainability issue of Europe's entire social and economic architecture, of repaying the debt that has been incurred in recent years to bear the costs of the pandemic and post-pandemic recovery.  

For this reason, voting in elections for the upcoming generations constitutes not only a civic duty, but a moral necessity. Leaving the decisions on these matters to those who wish to ignore young people’s difficulties, or – worse – who try to blame them in situations of social tension such as in the ecological transition, would be such a setback for young Europeans and the EU as a whole. 


translated by Rosa Palmieri


Bocconi University
Department of Economics

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