“You say you want a revolution,” the Beatles sang in a song that was released in the year that students across Europe famously took to the streets to protest against the established order.
It may not quite be 1968 all over again. Even so, there is a whiff of youthful rebellion in the air. Young people across the region have been staging angry demonstrations in the last few months as government austerity measures take effect.
The kids have a better case than their parents did. Even if they are doing so incoherently, the protesters are making a valid point: Europe’s young are being offered a rotten deal.
What we are witnessing may well be the first shots in a long generational war. Whereas the last century was dominated by a battle between classes over how to divide up the economic pie, this one may be over how you divide it up between generations.
The protests have been hard to ignore. Greek students took to the streets in October over harsh budget cuts.
In the U.K., plans to triple university fees provoked riots. Demonstrators attempted to smash their way into the Treasury and attacked a car carrying Prince Charles and his wife, Camilla, through central London.
In Rome last month, students hurled bottles, threw smoke bombs and dumped manure in the street before charging the barricades to protest against cuts to education spending. The police responded with tear gas.
In France, students joined worker protests in October last year against government plans to raise the minimum retirement age to 62 from 60.
It would be simple to dismiss it all as insignificant. Maybe all those students should accept that we live in tough times. They should just get back to the library to study for what will be a tight labor market when they graduate.
Then again, perhaps they are justified. At the root of this, many young people sense they are getting a raw deal. This generation will graduate burdened by big debts. If they want to buy a house, it will be cripplingly expensive, and there may not even be any mortgage loans available. Jobs are scarce, and often not very well paid, certainly when the cost of the education required just to get your foot in the door is taken into account.
Governments across Europe are running up vast debts, money that will have to be paid back in higher taxes by today’s 20- somethings. Retirement ages are being raised all the time. This generation may end up working into their 80s. They can forget about spending a few decades cruising around the Mediterranean and touring the Spanish golf courses like their parents.
In the euro area, the costs of austerity packages required to salvage the single currency are being paid by the young rather than the middle-aged or the old. Why? Because as demand collapses, rigid labor markets make it virtually impossible to fire older workers in many countries. So instead, employers just stop hiring ― and that means young people don’t get jobs.
According to Eurostat, the statistical agency of the European Union, the unemployment rate for the under-25s averaged almost 20 percent across the euro area in August 2010. In Spain, it was more than 40 percent. It will soon be normal for Spanish people in their early 20s to be out of work.
People are starting to notice that the dice are increasingly stacked against the under-30s.
“As home ownership becomes less accessible to the young, the ending of the retirement age poses challenges for youth employment, and the costs of higher education become punitive, it remains quite plausible that the fault lines of age could become increasingly well defined,” a report for the U.K.’s National Center for Social Research concluded last year.
And yet, it isn’t inevitable that such burdens should be placed on young shoulders. In reality, governments are deliberately loading more and more costs on the young. Static or declining populations, and rising life expectancy, mean the number of older people is rising. The old also vote more: In the British election of 2005, only 48 percent of those in the 25-34 age group voted, compared with 75 percent of the over-65s.
There are more of them, and they vote more, so the incentive for politicians is to constantly favor the old over the young. In practice, that means health spending gets protected, but education spending is cut. Employment rights are protected at the expense of new jobs. Interest rates are held down to support house prices ― good if you already own one, but tough if you don’t.
The net effect is that the system is increasingly unfair to the young. It’s time to find a fairer balance. Maybe retirement ages shouldn’t be raised unless there are enough jobs to absorb young workers. Perhaps education cuts should be matched by reductions in health care spending.
Otherwise, the middle-aged and the elderly will have only themselves to blame if they see a lot more smashed windows and cars in the next few years. And the generational war will be a long one.
By Matthew Lynn
Matthew Lynn is a Bloomberg News columnist and the author of “Bust,” a book on the Greek debt crisis. The opinions expressed are his own. ― Ed.