Posts tagged with: youth

shutterstock_119092402-580x331In his latest column, David Brooks examines the limits of data and “objective knowledge” in guiding or directing our imaginations when it comes to solving social problems.

Using teenage pregnancy as an example, he notes that although it may be of some use to get a sense on the general drivers of certain phenomena, such information is, in the end, “insufficient for anyone seeking deep understanding”:

Unlike minnows, human beings don’t exist just as members of groups. We all know people whose lives are breathtakingly unpredictable: a Mormon leader who came out of the closet and became a gay dad; an investment banker who became a nun; a child with a wandering anthropologist mom who became president.

We all slip into the general patterns of psychology and sociology sometimes, but we aren’t captured by them. People live and get pregnant one by one, and each life and each pregnancy has its own unlikely story. To move the next rung up the ladder of understanding you have to dive into the tangle of individual lives. You have to enter the realm of fiction, biography and journalism.

For the solution, he points to Augustine:

[Augustine] came to believe that it take selfless love to truly know another person. Love is a form of knowing and being known. Affection motivates you to want to see everything about another. Empathy opens you up to absorb the good and the bad. Love impels you not just to observe, but to seek union — to think as another thinks and feel as another feels. (more…)

The front page of a recent issue of the Vatican daily L’Osservatore Romano read like an Italian “Help Wanted” listing: “Lavori per Giovani Cercasi” (cf. Aug. 13 2010).

Unfortunately, this eye-catching headline was not a classified ad targeting young professionals for job openings at the Holy See’s many curial and administrative offices – the prized “stable” positions that would have Roman youth queuing in lines much longer those to enter Sunday Mass at St. Peter’s Basilica!

Rather, the Vatican newspaper summarized alarming statistics on worldwide youth unemployment released by the United Nations International Labor Office (ILO) in its detailed 87-page Global Employment Trends for Youth. In its special report the ILO confirmed global unemployment rates for young men and women (ages 15-24) are caught in a dangerous tailspin.

In only a two-year span between 2007 and 2009, an estimated 81 million out of 620 million youth have lost jobs –the unfortunate fall out from the massive lay-offs, non-renewed contracts, and start up bankruptcies during the Great Recession. That’s an average 13% unemployment rate for a young generation whose lives are on pause at critical stages of their vocational and financial development.

Some naysayers claim we are witnessing a veritable free fall into what may be a very long and bitter winter for job seekers, further extended by inevitable “double dip” periods of recession. So pessimistic are they, that we hear them quip: the currently frozen jobs market has activated a financial Ice Age. They argue that world’s unemployed youth are stuck in a very long-term socio-economic downturn in which many of them may never fulfill their basic dreams without stable jobs. Hence they can forget about plans for marriage, having children, purchasing homes, and saving for proper retirement.

Well short of claiming that the sky is falling, in the very least we can agree wit the ILO report: rising unemployment among youth will surely “lead to socio-economic instability and political unrest.”

NEETs and Nullafacenti

A 13% youth unemployment rate would be a “dream figure” for some industrialized countries, like Italy where I live and work. Here average unemployment for the same age bracket hovers regularly above 20% and drastically worsens when counting those young adults older than 25 who are not counted in most official unemployment figures.

Those young Italians who procrastinate entry into the workforce by not graduating university on time or who are still stuck in the starting blocks of their career by taking on un-paid company apprenticeships are typically not counted as unemployed. When we include them in the unemployment statistics, some estimates rise to well over 30%.

Finally, there is the most worrying segment of the young jobless population: the so-called NEETs (Not in Employment or Education or Training). In Italy, NEETs have now reached two million and account for over 21% of the country’s unemployed youth. NEETs are often tarred and feathered as the nation’s nullafacenti (“do nothings”), who help Italy maintain the number one EU position for this ever-growing detriment to society. They invest absolutely nothing in themselves to find traditional jobs or create entrepreneurial business opportunities – a financial and social welfare time bomb just waiting to explode.

To prove my point, just watch this TV5 clip (see minutes 12.20-13:50). Last week on Italian national television, reporters covered the shocking story of a 25 year-old NEET male (living at home in a city near Rome) who violently threatened his parents, extorted them, and even locked them out of their own house as he demanded more “allowance” money to satisfy his various material caprices. Eventually local police had to intervene to subdue the nullafacente and “restore” the official property rights of his parents own home.

Adverse vs. Difficult Conditions

All this is going on while the 2010-11 forecast for economic growth in Europe appears dim, as the Old Continent sputters along a very trepid economic recovery.

In Euro-zone countries official reports for the first quarter of 2010 were modest at best and downright dismal in economies of its weakest Mediterranean partners, like Italy, Spain and Greece. Second quarter reports released on August 13 by Euro Stat were not inspiring either, with average Euro-zone GDP growth rates up by a mere 1%.

When studying conditions in impoverished and developing countries, our heartstrings are tugged by the increasing impossibility for young people to succeed while paralyzed by a most vicious circle of economic, political and social turmoil (no fault of their own!). These include massive obstacles such as absolute tyranny, decades of civil war and genocide, widespread corruption, little or now rule of law, no direct foreign investment, no regular lines of credit, devastating droughts and famines, deathly outbreaks of easily treatable diseases, faulty telecommunications, et al.

Now these are what I call adverse conditions. These are conditions which all but crush any chances youth have to find and create new work, despite their high ambitions, inventive strategies, and sincere vocations in their line of business. Their odds will improve only if radical changes and revolutions occur in their societies.

Yet, we cannot say the same about the chances of youth finding and creating work while living in the world’s largest but struggling industrialized economies, like Italy. Comparatively speaking, this is still a land in which youth can make it in life. Here some of the world’s most creative and unrelenting businessmen achieve success, even despite suffocating regional and national tax structures, turf wars with mafioso thugs, and a near bankrupt social welfare state in times of austerity. Believe it or not, it is still possible for enterprising youth to make it in Italy. It may be very difficult to succeed here, but not impossible as in, say, Cuba or North Korea. Far from it.

Too Much Dolce Vita?

Some stats claim an amazing 70 percent of Italian single men and women (both employed and unemployed) live at home until their mid-to-late 30s. Some critics from hardworking cultures typically say this population group lives the “sweet life”, a.k.a. the dolce vita. Others defend the socio-economic phenomenon, claiming this is the only way youth can save for a future home and a car down payment or to help keep their parents’ household afloat. In either case, they enjoy the benefits of a secure and relatively struggle-free home environment. In Italy no 15-24 year-olds starve or sleep on the street.

However they view themselves, Italian youth usually fail to appreciate that living at home provides a tremendous financial opportunity for them. Unlike others living own their own and barely making ends meet, they can save up small amounts capital over time to try their luck in entrepreneurial ventures on their own or in partnership with others who share their same business concept. This is what I think the Vatican newspaper meant to inspire, when it said youth should live up to their potential as the “forza motrice” (driving force) of the world’s teetering economy.

After all, in addition to being able to save a little venture capital, they have assets and resources that impoverished and developing nations would fight tooth over nail for. They are private owners of smart phones and wireless lap taps, have 24/7 internet access, enjoy affordable higher education (and cheap advanced education), have efficient and very inexpensive transport around the European Union (God Bless Ryan Air!), and can easily request small start up business loans – typically up to €5000 (with their parents as guarantors) to secure a little more investment capital.

And yet so many bitter young Italians sit idle in their beautiful piazzas with nothing better to do.

Ironically these historic squares were not built for modern day-dreamers, but to host and encourage vibrant hubs of entrepreneurial trading during Renaissance times –the very period that gave inspiration to the free market as we know it.

Notwithstanding, Italian youth know not their past nor perceive well their futures. They blame everyone from Berlusconi to the Madonna (not the pop-star!) for having no opportunities.

Parents Should Be Furious

The Vatican news piece of two weeks ago (written on Friday the 13th, another reason to blame the bad stats!) should have been dedicated to a story on inspiring young business leadership in the recession market. They should have interviewed a young Italian entrepreneur, a friend of mine, whose marketing agency was built on less than €1000 start up capital. It now approaches six figures in annual revenue and the business owner is now attempting to purchase his own home, get married and is considering hiring other young collaborators to help take his venture to the next level (yes he is about to create new jobs!).

Italian parents should furious, just like the master in Christ’s Parable of the Talents, whose timid servant had simply buried the meager capital he had received. The risk aversion is the same for Italian upper and middle class youth who do nothing worthwhile, even with a generous €200 paghetto (monthly allowance) that some of them receive. Worse still, they blow it at bars, movie theaters and cell phone shops. Did they know that some successful internet businesses humbly start with that very same amount?

Perhaps it boils down to a question of values – values instilled in youth by an overly cautious post-war generation of parents who insist their offspring find the golden fleece of work (i.e. un posto fisso or permanent union-protected job). Their encouragement has done little but create false hopes in youth.

Sadly, this values system is broken. In Italy, we can no longer use the same macroeconomic and political “excuses” to define the youth’s scapegoats, like we still can in developing and impoverished countries or in 1940s post-World War II Europe. In modern industrialized, but often struggling countries like Italy, the forza motrice must be the the current generation of enterprising youth, whether they like it or not. To do so, they need to finally switch gears and overcome their aversion to risk, discover their special callings in life, invest their talents in worthwhile projects, and once again prove they are one of the most creative and resilient cultures on earth.

My article from this week’s Acton News & Commentary:

Soviet communism adopted Karl Marx’s teaching that religion was the “opiate of the masses” and launched a campaign of bloody religious persecution. Marx was misguided about the role of religion but years later many communists became aware that turning people away from religious life increases dependence on government to address life’s problems. The history of government coercion that comes from turning from religion to government makes a new study suggesting a national decline in religious life particularly alarming to those concerned about individual freedom.

The American Religious Identification Survey, published by Trinity College in Hartford, Conn., reports that we should expect one in five Americans to identify themselves as having no religious commitments by 2030. The study, titled “American Nones: The Profile of the No Religion Population,” reports that Americans professing no religion, or Nones, have become more mainstream and similar to the general public in marital status, education, racial and ethnic makeup and income. The Nones have increased from 8.1 percent of the U.S. adult population in 1990 to 15 percent in 2008.

According to the study, 22 percent of American 18 to 29-year-olds now self-identify as Nones. For those promoting dependency on government to handle the challenges of everyday life, as well as those who wish to take advantage of a growing market for morally bankrupt products and services, the news of declining religious life is welcome. (more…)

Today’s Wall Street Journal Europe carries an editorial titled “Jamais on Sunday” approving of the French government’s attempt to allow some businesses to open on Sunday:

Parliament is likely today to pass a bill that would scrap the 1906 law restricting Sunday work. The law’s original purpose was to keep Sundays sacred — France’s empty churches show how well that’s worked — and the Catholic Church remains a strong supporter. But it has become emblematic of the regulatory red tape strangling the economy. Some 180 exceptions have been made to the law. For instance, a store that sells sunglasses can open on Sunday because sunglasses are considered entertainment, while a store that sells eyeglasses must be closed.

This got me thinking about Pope Benedict’s call in n. 32 of Caritas in Veritate to “prioritize the goal of access to steady employment for everyone” and also about this Foreign Policy piece on Europe’s new “lost generation”:

Unemployment among job seekers under 25 in France has risen more than 40 percent in the past year, while total unemployment rose by about 26 percent. A third of Britain’s unemployed are under 25. Youth unemployment is nudging 40 percent in Spain.

The Baltic states, whose bubble burst so dramatically last fall, have seen the greatest increases. In June 2008, between 8.9 and 11.9 percent of young people in Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia were out of work. As of the last round of reported data, from March and April, those rates stand between 25 and 35.1 percent — about a threefold increase in less than a year.

[...]

The effects aren’t simply financial. One prominent British think-tanker recently warned, “If this situation persists, the risk may be of a new generation lacking the experience, qualifications, and self-belief to provide for themselves and their families.”

Moreover, youth unemployment, much more so than for older workers, carries dangerous social effects: social exclusion, depression, poorer health, social disruption, and higher incidences of crime, incarceration, and suicide. With every month a teenager is unemployed, for instance, his or her likelihood of being convicted of a crime increases.

[...]

“It’s hard to say whether a whole generation is ‘doomed,’” says Yale University political scientist David Cameron. “The cyclical component will probably start receding a bit in late 2010 or 2011. But we’ll have higher unemployment for a long time to come. Europe needs a growth rate of 2 to 3 percent a year, year after year, to bring the rate down substantially. I don’t think anyone sees that happening anytime soon, if ever.”

“The great benefit is that in a few years, when the Earth turns, there will be thousands fewer [young job-seekers],” says Blanchflower, the former British central banker. “But now, we’re just trying to get these economies moving. And unemployment, especially among young people, is a ticking time bomb.”

(HT: Real Clear World)

The Church’s position against Sunday work makes sense if people actually went to Church, just as it would be absurd for the Church to de-emphasize the great importance due to the Lord’s Day. But with rising unemployment among the youth and the degree of secularization that has already taken place, does it still make any sense?

I remember my graduate school days in Toronto when I first saw bumper stickers that read “Keep Sundays Free for Family and Friends.” I noted the noble sentiments but also the significant absence of God from the Sabbath.

So how has the introduction of Sunday business affected our understanding of Sunday worship? Should the Church argue against market deregulation that would help young people find work and begin their adulthood? Is it impossible to combine Sunday work with Sunday worship? Is it the case that once Sunday is treated like any other day of the week, the Church has already admitted defeat?

There’s been a spate of stories lately in various media about the difficulty that evangelical denominations are having keeping young adults interested in the life of the institutional church. Here’s one from USA Today, “Young adults aren’t sticking with church” (HT: Kruse Kronicle; Out of Ur). And here’s another from a recent issue of my own denomination’s magazine, The Banner, “Where Did Our Young Adults Go?”

I wonder if the push to be “relevant,” initiated largely by the baby boomer generation’s rise to power in institutional structures, hasn’t hastened rather than chastened the loss of interest on the part of young adults. If all churches offer is culture-lite, why even bother?

No doubt the reaction by some will to go to even greater lengths to make church “cool,” because using pizza and pop for the Eucharist hasn’t been enough so far. But, contrary to what might be the natural reaction to some, the way to keep people invested and coming to church isn’t in the continuous lowering of barriers and expectations, but rather the call to a committed and disciplined life of discipleship.

There’s a reason why well-to-do, educated Muslims are attracted by Islamist rhetoric: it gives them something to believe in, something ostensibly worth fighting and dying for. The fact that Westerners don’t get that is all the more illustrative of how far gone the culture really is.

For a small but illuminating example of the current zeitgeist, check out the questionable reaction of this pastor and teacher, when a teenage student falls asleep during Friday prayers: “If God knows they need sleep, who am I to wake them up?” The question, no doubt arising out of admirable intentions, leaves me agog and aghast.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but Osama Bin Laden is bidding his followers to come and die for him, and we can’t even ask our kids to stay awake during prayers?

It’s been shown in numerous studies, reports, and anecdotal tellings that religion that is high-maintenance, expecting more of its members than perfunctory attendance, tends to do better in attracting new members and keeping old ones. People are looking for meaning and truth. That’s just a basic fact of human nature. If people aren’t getting the truth at church, they’ll look for it somewhere else, even if, as in the case of Islamism, it’s a futile search.

As Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “Do not try to make the Bible relevant. Its relevance is axiomatic…. Do not defend God’s Word, but testify to it…. Trust to the Word. It is a ship loaded to the very limits of its capacity!”

Lately, I’ve heard one too many emo kids misread T.S. Eliot as being one of their own. In Russell Kirk’s words, it is easy for the “rootless and aimless” of the new generation to over-identify with Eliot, seeing him as a spokesman “for the futility and fatuity of the modern era, all whimper and no bang — a kind of Anglo-American ritualistic nihilism.” And whining, pining, Anglo-American ritualistic nihilism is the cultural trend of the day, whether you look at the musically and lyrically directionless music that tops current charts, the shapelessness and androgyny seeping into high fashion, or the melodramatic and attention-seeking ways teenagers and college students spend their social time (not the least of which takes place on the Internet, through personal blogs, Facebook, and chatting).

Vindicating Eliot won’t restore the Waste Land to health or happiness, but it’s important to wrest him from the claws of both actual and perpetual adolescents who would make him a posterboy for their own disillusionment. As Kirk says, Eliot wanted to expose the soulish devastation modern life creates, but also to “show the way back to permanent things.” Speaking of The Waste Land, Eliot himself wrote, “I may have expressed for [approving critics] their own illusion of being disillusioned, but that did not form part of my intention.” Careful readers of Eliot will realize that he railed against exactly the kinds of things that misguided existentialist or socialist types promote, such as in this passage from Murder in the Cathedral:

Those who put their faith in worldly order
Not controlled by the order of God,
In confident ignorance, but arrest disorder
Make it fast, breed fatal disease,
Degrade what they exalt.