International youth day

Unlocking the potential of young people

Today is UN International Youth Day. To mark the occasion, we look at the situation of young people in the countries where the European Training Foundation works, and potential policy responses to the challenges they face.

Finding one’s way in life, and one’s place in the community and the world of work is a challenge young people the world over have faced for generations. Even in countries with strong institutions and thriving economies, many young people struggle to find their feet. In the transition and developing economies that are the focus of the ETF’s action, young people face even greater challenges, and these have been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic: high youth unemployment, scarcity of decent jobs, education systems that do not provide them with the skills and the support they need. And the outlook is particularly bleak for young people from remote or depressed regions, from minority groups, from disadvantaged or migrant backgrounds, those with disabilities, and young women, especially in the Southern and Eastern Mediterranean.

The ETF has been working, including in partnership with Unicef, to study the situation of young people in the countries where it works and examine how countries can unlock the untapped potential of their young populations. The results can be found in a series of recent publications: Preventing a ‘lockdown generation’ in Europe and Central Asia (in cooperation with Unicef), Building a resilient generation in Europe and Central Asia (in cooperation with Unicef), Youth in transition in the Southern and Eastern MediterraneanUnlocking youth potential in South Eastern Europe and TurkeyYouth Situation in Serbia.

While the situation varies greatly between countries in terms of demographics and economic dynamism, young people everywhere face often long and difficult transitions from education to work. When they do find a job, it is often precarious, informal, part-time, or temporary, and young people are often forced to accept jobs that do not correspond to their level of education, or field of study. In many countries, higher education is no guarantee of better job prospects. Many young people become discouraged and join the large numbers not in education, employment or training (NEETs). This particularly affects young women in the Southern and Eastern Mediterranean, many of whom are drawn into unpaid domestic caring roles on completing their education.

Whether in countries with burgeoning youth populations, or those with aging and shrinking workforces, this represents a huge untapped potential for the countries concerned, as well as a strong push factor driving young people to consider a future outside their home country. 

“Education is not yet able to prepare young people for the kind of unpredictable and flexible working environment they will face” says Cristina Mereuta, ETF Senior Human Capital Development Expert. “Teaching is still very much based on memorisation and theory, and young people need to be able to transform theory into practice in unpredictable, environments.” Mereuta highlights the need to move towards competency-based learning and for stakeholder cooperation to open education up to the world of work and the wider community. “It's not only the school that can help young people transition from education to work” she says. “It’s the whole community, the businesses, and the social partners…it’s a shared responsibility.” 

Young people themselves complain that their education system does not provide them with the skills required by potential employers, that employers look for experience, and the jobs on offer are unattractive and beneath their education level. They point out the lack of support in making informed education and career choices and in finding a job. Few see self-employment or starting their own business as a viable alternative, and those who do aspire to become their own boss face many barriers in accessing skills and financial resources and dealing with bureaucracy. Though there are inspiring examples of effective entrepreneurship education and youth entrepreneurship programmes in many of our partner countries.

But there are not only clouds on the horizon. The countries of the neighbourhood are experiencing and economic transformation towards more service and knowledge based economies. With their digital skills and environmental awareness, young people are well-placed to take advantage of the opportunities created by the green and digital transition. The digital economy also creates opportunities for young people to telemigrate, marketing their skills to foreign companies without leaving home, notwithstanding the concerns that the platform economy may raise as regards employment rights, working conditions and social protection. 

Moreover, the COVID-19 pandemic has been a wake-up call for governments. It has focused attention on the predicament of young people who have lost out on education and training, who have experienced isolation and alienation, and face challenging labour market conditions in countries that, in many cases, were barely recovering from the economic crisis of 2008-10. Policy solutions focus on improving education quality, focusing on key competences, strengthening links between education and business, expanding work-based learning opportunities, improving the attractiveness and relevance of vocational education and training, investing in career guidance, rolling out activation programmes, and other active labour market measures, including entrepreneurship promotion schemes. 

Many of these issues are in the process of being addressed in the context of long-term education reforms which feature prominently in national development strategies across the region, and are supported by the EU and other donors. The ETF is contributing to these efforts through its expertise, analysis and advice. 

The ETF is actively engaged, in cooperation with the European Union and the ILO in rolling out youth guarantee schemesin the Western Balkans, inspired by similar initiatives promoted by the EU across its Member States. In the coming period, the ETF will be supporting the EU in advocating the adoption of youth guarantee schemes in the other regions where we work. The ETF is also supporting the EU4Youth project in the Eastern Partnership, aimed at fostering participation of young people in society and their employability. 


Despite the challenges they face, many young people we have spoken to are optimistic, idealistic and engaged, and eager to contribute to their countries and their communities. They want to make their mark. As Fares Silabdi, a young languages graduate from Algeria, told us, “Young people have lots of talent, and lots of energy. They want to put that energy to work, to change things, and to change the world.”

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