During the presidential election campaign the candidates expressed concerns about youth unemployment, which they all promised to tackle if elected. The prevailing wisdom has always been that the state has a responsibility to ensure there are jobs for the young, and governments are regularly criticised for the higher than average levels of youth unemployment.
In the latest official figures released by the Statistical Service, the unemployment rate for the last quarter of 2022 for the work force aged between 16 and 24 was 19.2 compared to 17.4 per cent for the corresponding period of the previous year; the national rate was 6.9 per cent. Cyprus’ unemployment rate in general is higher than the EU average. According to Eurostat, average unemployment rate for the young in the EU in January was 14.4 per cent. In Cyprus there were no figures for January, but in December it was 18.7 per cent for this age group, while the overall rate for January of 7.4 per cent was unchanged from the previous month.
While there is higher youth unemployment than in the rest of Europe, it is not for a lack of jobs. Shortages in the hospitality industry are so acute, the previous government in one of its last acts approved regulations to ease the employment of third country nationals. There are also shortages for many categories of skilled workers, such as nurses, electricians, plumbers, even if we accept that many young Cypriots are no longer prepared to take low-paid unskilled jobs which have become the preserve of foreign students and migrants.
Although there are no figures, many young people are supported by their parents as they claim that they are waiting for the right type of job to come along, preferably in the public sector. The aim of getting a public sector job could be one of the reasons for relatively high youth unemployment. A survey, conducted not so long ago, found that about 50 per cent of school-leavers wanted to work in the public service. This should have sounded the alarm bells for the politicians, rather than youth joblessness which cannot be attributed to structural unemployment.
There is something fundamentally wrong with a society in which half of the young, the future generation, crave an undemanding, uncreative working life in the state’s care until death. A society that cultivates risk aversion, lack of drive, conformity and a sense of entitlement in its young cannot be dynamic or innovative in any way. Politicians often bemoan the fact that many highly qualified and talented young Cypriots go abroad to work, without ever delving into the reasons for this. Could it be that highly qualified, driven individuals find that, apart from the higher pay, by working abroad they have more opportunities to develop, rather than in a country dominated by civil servants and union bosses?
Youth unemployment and the tendency of a sizeable percentage of the country’s best youngsters to work abroad is not as straightforward an issue as the politicians would suggest – a lack of attractive jobs for youth that government is not doing enough to provide. We are not living in a socialist state which has a constitutional obligation to provide jobs for life to the people, although many of our politicians labour under this illusion.
They also pay lip service to a dynamic economy and innovation but again, betraying their socialist thinking, argue that this should be driven by the state, despite knowing this will never happen. Dynamic economies and innovative ideas are produced by individuals and businesses in countries in which competition and risk-taking thrive, in which the state’s responsibility is to create the right conditions, instead of thwarting enterprise through red tape and over-regulation of the market.
Most important, though, is to change attitudes and mentalities and this can only be done through education. There is something deeply flawed with an education system that produces youths whose ambition is to get a job in the public service that requires no hard work, no drive, no risk-taking and no ambition. Perhaps the pay and benefits offered by the public service are so attractive, many youths are prepared to sacrifice the option of a rewarding and exciting working life for its sake. Parents probably also play a part in limiting the ambitions of their children to securing a safe, well-paid job in the public sector.
That parents’ associations have been fanatically campaigning to scrap twice-yearly exams at public schools is a reflection of their prevailing view that children should not be pushed and made to work hard. Most recently leaders of parents’ associations have been complaining about “difficult exams” that “victimises” their children. This over-protectiveness and demand that students must have an easy school life will not create citizens for a dynamic and creative economy. It is a glorification of the easy and undemanding work life, and then we wonder why 50 per cent of school children dream of becoming civil servants.
Changing such attitudes is not easy nor will it happen overnight. It is a long-term and complex project, but it is the only way, admittedly radical, to effectively tackle the perennial problem of high youth unemployment and create a dynamic enterprise culture.