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Young and without a future

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ATHENS — Enea Gjoni is sitting silently with some of his friends at an outdoor cafe that has become a gathering place for the Greek capital’s unemployed youth. No one is talking. They have been here for hours, as they have every other day for the past few months, and have pretty much run out of things to say.

A year ago, Gjoni, 19, graduated from a technical high school in the city with modest life goals: He wanted to be an auto mechanic. But in a country that is entering its fifth year of recession, he has been unable to find any work.

“There’s no future here,” he said as he idly stirred his coffee.

More than 5.5 million young people across Europe are unemployed, the European Commission reports, part of what scholars are dubbing a lost generation.

The youth unemployment rate in Greece and Spain has climbed to a staggering 53 percent. That rate is 36 percent in Portugal, 34 percent in Italy and 23 percent in France, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. That compares with 15 percent in the United States. Globally, one in eight people under the age of 25 is unemployed.

In the euro zone, the unemployment rate is 26 percent — the highest since the creation of the common currency.

In a report in July, the OECD, a group made up of 34 democratic countries, warned that youths are bearing the burden of the economic crisis in Europe. While many of these young people have their families to fall back on and can often live at home for free, the OECD warned of the lifetime damage — or “scarring effect” — that comes with derailing career plans and earnings potential at such an early age. And the problem isn’t confined to those who lack education or skills. Even those with college degrees are finding themselves stuck without work or in temporary, dead-end jobs.

The situation is chipping away at the foundation of European societies. The high unemployment rate has been linked to rising crime among young people and a higher incidence of depression. Joblessness is bringing down birth rates as these young adults put off starting families. Many youths are leaving their home countries to seek jobs, while others have given up.

European governments have been struggling with how to increase youth employment given the reluctance of businesses to hire at all. Italy is giving modest tax breaks to companies that hire people into the workforce for the first time. Spain has increased its funding to start-up incubators and loans to young people looking to start small businesses. On Wednesday, French President Francois Hollande proposed a more ambitious fix to the country’s unemployment problem: He offered to reimburse companies up to 75 percent of the salary of a new hire 16 to 24 years old for up to three years. Hollande said he hopes to create 100,000 jobs next year in this way, at a cost of $2.9 billion to the government. While it was an unpopular move among economists who have been preaching fiscal discipline, it made Hollande a hero among young people.

But even those who applaud the efforts acknowledge that they are only temporary fixes and that even radical labor-market reform may not be enough to spur employment in the near future.

The youth employment crisis can be seen most acutely across Southern Europe, where young people, despite their cultural and linguistic differences, have similar stories of hopelessness, fear, anxiety and anger.

In Spain, college students and recent graduates who call themselves Juventud sin Futuro — or youth without a future — have taken to the streets to fight government policies and social cuts that affect young people. Carles Vallecillo Folguera, 24, who got his degree in computers from the Polytechnical University of Catalonia, said he once thought that he would have a stable life after he graduated. Instead, he has found himself hopping from temporary job to temporary job to support his parents and his sister, who all lost their jobs over the past year.

“Everything is very dark, and I feel like things are getting worse,” Folguera said.

A few hundred miles to the east in Italy, 24-year-old Tatiana Cavola, who received a degree in foreign languages at the prestigious University of Rome last year and had hoped to be a teacher, is working as a cashier and food-prep assistant at a McDonald’s. “Everybody says I’m lucky because I have a good job. . . . It’s true, I am lucky, but if you think this could be the job of my life, it is very sad,” she said.

In Greece, Gjoni says his 42-year-old mother got laid off from her waitress job two years ago and his 52-year-old father, who works for a road-construction company, hasn’t gotten paid in five months because the company is bankrupt. Gjoni loathes the idea of leaving Greece, but he thinks he has no choice if he wants to find a way to support his family. He’s applying for a visa to join his uncle in the United States, where he works as a school bus driver.

“Greece is now a country just for vacation,” Gjoni said.

Despite the depressing outlook, some youths say there are glimmers of hope in how young people are responding. In Portugal, for instance, where the government dissolved the culture ministry as part of its agreement to cut spending in return for an international bailout, youths have formed art collectives and staged impromptu concerts.

In Italy and Spain, many jobs before the crisis guaranteed lifelong employment, so there was no need to be entrepreneurial. Now, young people have put a renewed emphasis on innovation.

At the Madrid Vallecas Incubator, Rocio Herrero Rivero, who is in her 20s, says her parents thought she was crazy when she decided to start her own fashion company last year. Herrero Rivero, whose Issie Organics line ranges from T-shirts to wool coats made of eco-friendly fabrics, said it’s been a struggle and she has used all her savings and money from family and friends. But she is proud to have sold more than 50 pieces.

“Everything has a good and bad side,” she said. “The crisis is pushing Spaniards to think of new ways of thinking of ideas and of creating. There’s no fear in going out on your own because it’s not like you have any other choice.”

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