Taking to the Streets: Economic Crises and Youth Protest in Europe

By Hooghe, Marc | Harvard International Review, Fall 2012 | Go to article overview

Taking to the Streets: Economic Crises and Youth Protest in Europe


Hooghe, Marc, Harvard International Review


Since 2011, various European countries have experienced periods of intensive political turmoil, with mass demonstrations that have sometimes turned violent. The high level of mobilization contradicts the often-expressed idea that young generations are no longer interested in politics% but hit the hardest by the economic downturn, the youth are most motivated to mobilize themselves.

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Until a couple of years ago, it was commonplace to complain about the lack of political and social involvement among youth in Europe. To a large extent, these complaints were ill-grounded. The available statistical evidence does not show that younger age groups were less active than their older counterparts. They were and still are less likely to register as voters or to become a party member, but they remain very active in other sorts of mostly non-institutionalized participation. The student revolts of the 1960s have become legendary, and in retrospect the social movements of that era indeed were successful in putting new issues like the environment, democratic equality, and women's rights on the political agenda. In countries like Germany, the Netherlands, and Belgium, the 1980s were the era of massive and sustained protest against the deployment of nuclear weapons.

In the two decades following the fall of the Berlin Wall, however, no such large mobilizing issues were to be found anymore, and no single large protest movement has since succeeded in conquering the global political agenda. This did not mean, however, that levels of participation in protest demonstrations had decreased. Counting all the demonstrators in a country over a longer period of time, shows that the level of protest more or less remained the same, but that protesters were dispersed over a broader range of smaller and momentary protests. Because of these small-scale activities, the mass media tended to lose interest, and so the political impact of these protests also became more limited. Research on Belgian police records, for example, has shown that the number of demonstrations in the country has continued to grow, but that the average number of participants in a demonstration is much lower now than it was a few decades ago. European youth continue to participate as intensively as ever before, but the main difference is that it is not always self-evident what the result of this engagement might be. While European youth protest against the adverse consequences of economic globalization, the scale of their protest already makes clear that they themselves have entered an increasingly globalized world, in which the boundaries of the nation-state have lost much of their historical importance.

Youth unemployment

Rapid changes occurred from 2008 onward, as the financial crisis hit European economies. In Spain, youth unemployment rocketed from 24.6 percent in 2008 to 47.8 percent in 2011. This means that for most young people in Spain (the situation is not that much better in countries like Greece, Portugal, Ireland, or Italy) prospects for finding a job are very limited. While in the past, highly educated youth could hope that their school education record would provide them with the prospects of finding a good job, these prospects have become very bleak. All economic sectors were hit by the financial crisis, and the public sector too was forced to make cuts; many companies and government offices simply suspended new recruitments. While those who had jobs usually managed to keep them, those who only entered the labor market, had no prospect whatsoever. Since these young people have not worked yet, in most countries this means that they either do not receive any unemployment benefits, or only receive them for a shorter period of time. For millions of younger people, especially in southern regions of Europe, this effectively means they have no other option than to remain dependent on their parents. The transition to adulthood, and the independence that comes along with it, has been delayed by a few years for this group. …

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