An annual study of developments in opportunities for social participation in all 28 EU member states shows that despite economic recovery, the gap between young and old is growing and the social divide between Northern and Southern Europe remains immense. Estonia ranks 10th in the overall index.
Children and youth have been hit the hardest by the European economic and debt crisis, a study by the Bertelsmann Stiftung found, with which the foundation assesses the development of social justice in the 28 EU countries on the basis of 35 criteria. The index examines six different dimensions of social justice: poverty, education, the labor market, health, intergenerational justice, and social cohesion and nondiscrimination.
In the EU, some 26 million children and young people – or 27.9 percent of the population under 18 – are threatened by poverty or social exclusion. The future prospects of the 5.4 million young people who are neither employed nor in education or training are similarly bleak. The social justice gap in Europe runs most strongly between North and South and between young and old.
Estonia 10th overall in index
Ranked 10th in the overall Social Justice Index, Estonia is well placed in the upper mid-range. This is due in no small part to the country’s good education system (rank 4): in no other EU country does social background have so little influence on educational success. However, Estonia continues to have an excessively high school dropout rate of 11.4 percent (rank 20).
With regards to intergenerational justice, Estonia also fares very well, with 4th place in the rankings. This can be attributed above all to the country’s solid budgetary and family policy. Estonia has a very fair parental benefits system and is also the least indebted country in the entire EU, the foundation said. The level of debt is equivalent to 9.7 percent of GDP and has fallen since 2014 – this can be compared for instance with 177 percent of GDP in the case of Greece.
On the other hand, Estonia’s environmental policy has yielded mixed results: while the share of renewable energy has increased from 17.1 percent in 2007 to 25.6 percent in 2013 (rank 7), Estonia is one of only two countries to have increased its greenhouse gas emissions.
5.4 million young people neither employed nor in education or training in EU
In Spain, Greece, Italy, and Portugal alone, the number of children and young people who are threatened by poverty or social exclusion has increased by 1.2 million since 2007, from 6.4 to 7.6 million. They live in households with less than 60 percent of the median income, suffer from serious material deprivation, or grow up in effectively nonearning households.
Moreover, many EU citizens between 20 and 24 years of age find themselves in precarious circumstances. In this age group, 5.4 million (17.8 percent) are neither employed nor in education or training. The number has risen in 25 EU member states since 2008, in some cases substantially. Only in Germany and Sweden has the outlook for this age group improved in recent years. In contrast, the Southern European countries registered the most negative development: in Spain, the share of 20- to 24-year-olds who are neither employed nor in education or training climbed from 16.6 to 24.8 percent, while in Italy it soared from 21.6 to 32 percent.
Growing gulf between the generations
The gap between the generations is also widening throughout Europe. While the share of children at risk of poverty or social exclusion has increased from 26.4 to 27.9 percent on average in the EU since 2007, the corresponding share of the population of 65 years of age and over has dropped from 24.4 to 17.8 percent. The main reason: in the course of the crisis, retirement benefits and old-age pensions either did not decline or did not shrink as strongly as did incomes in the younger population.
This contrasting development between young and old is exacerbated by three Europe-wide trends: growing public debt is burdening the younger generations especially; future investments in education as well as research and development are stagnating; and aging populations are raising pressure on the financial viability of social security systems.
Bertelsmann Stiftung chairman Aart De Geus warned of the further consequences: “We cannot afford to lose a generation in Europe, either socially or economically. The EU and its member states must make special efforts to sustainably improve opportunities for young people.” He also drew attention to the existing Youth Guarantee and Youth Employment Initiative of the EU and called for the systematic implementation and adequate funding of these sensible initiatives in the member states. Although slight upward trends can be seen in the labor market in many EU countries, these do not by any means constitute a comprehensive turnaround in matters of social justice after years of decline.
Editor: M. Oll