The citizens of the future

Eric Gordy
Youth and unemployment

There is nothing in the recent research on young people in Serbia that will be terribly surprising to anybody who has been paying attention over the last twenty years. Young people are continuing to become more marginal as the society gets older and monopolies of opportunity become more rigid. The number of people between the ages of 15 and 29 fell by 200,000 over the last ten years.[1]

Europe’s economic crisis hit Serbia late but hard, affecting people seeking employment more severely than people already in it. From a low of 13.6% in 2008, unemployment hit 23.0% in 2011.[2] People between the ages of 20 and 35 make up 25.3% of the population but 43.4% of all unemployed people.[3]  48.8% of all people aged 20 to 24, and 35.6% of all people aged 25 to 29, are unemployed.[4] 55.3% of unemployed people have been seeking work for longer than two years.[5]

The disproportionate manner in which the effects of the global economic crisis have excluded young people from employment offers just one indication of a general migration of the young away from a variety of forms of social participation. This is one of the findings of a research project released this week by a group of social researchers led by the sociologist Smiljka Tomanović. The collected works are presented under the title Youth: Our Present[6] (the title is a self-conscious response to the succession of ideologies that have presented youth as “our future”). Taken together they offer a glimpse into the development of a state that has not integrated young people into its public and economic life and has systematically failed to meet their needs. The picture that emerges is of a generation coming forward with an individualist approach to meeting material challenges, combined with an authoritarian approach to understanding the nature and causes of those challenges.

Exclusion from employment is accompanied by exclusion from other institutions and dimensions of social life, including both public life and family life. Tomanović observes a “general process of privatization of the key mechanisms of social reproduction, which include not only economic but also other forms of capital.”[7]  The difficulty in finding and maintaining employment is mirrored by similar difficulties with access to housing, education, and other sources of security[8]  – with the result that the satisfaction of these needs migrates from the institutional sector to the field of informal connections. To take housing as an example, the findings presented by Dragan Stanojević indicate that while, perhaps not surprisingly, 64.5% of people aged 24-25 live with their parents, a more surprising 36.7% of people aged 34-35 continue to do so.[9]

Faced with narrow avenues of access to employment and social integration, young people are studying more and longer, with the number attending university increasing to 40% after 2000.[10]  The increase in periods devoted to study, however, is not accompanied by an expectation that a completed course of study will result in employment in the field in which a student specialized, particularly not in the short term.

At the same time that many institutions remain closed to them, young people have massively refused voluntary avenues of (official and organizational) social engagement. 65.82% are completely uninterested in and inactive in political groups, while 10.8% are politically active.[11] A similar finding applies to various types of social and issue-oriented engagement: only 6.2% are active while 78.9% are not.[12]

The low rates of political and social engagement certainly indicate some level of departure from and avoidance of institutions. One way of interpreting this would be in terms of alienation, or in a more postmodern spirit, as a strategy of selectively recognizing those portions of reality that are not perceived as hostile.[13] A difficulty with this sort of interpretation, however, is that it locates the problem in some type of mystically rendered apathy that is somehow endemic to the young.

An alternative approach would be to concentrate on the institutions that are the objects of refusal. In an atmosphere where political parties are the carriers of patronage rather than ideas, what motivations would young (or old) people have to join them other than opportunistic ones? When civic and nongovernmental groups function as closed circles monopolized by their founders from an earlier period, what opportunities for expression or advancement of a cause are likely to bring people in? Although it is likely that many young people are indeed apathetic, it is probably not less likely that institutions and groups that could engage them have failed to win (or even seek) their trust. Such a possibility is suggested by a series of studies indicating low levels of trust in most political and civic institutions. It opens space for the theory that young people do recognize some cultural or social interests, but do not regard registered groups as the avenue through which they can be realized.

It would be easy to conclude that most of the factors that lengthen the period of dependence and defer the establishment of independence for young people are economic in nature, and that most of these can be traced to difficulties faced in housing and employment. At the same time it would be easy to recognize a cultural element deriving from long experience with semi-legal and semi-legitimate political environments. The implications of both are similar: young people are entering the public life of a society that systematically fails to provide them with security and to meet their needs.

What is more difficult is to try to project what the telescoped adolescence that young people in Serbia are compelled to face means for the future development of political society and for the practice of citizenship in the country. That would mean projecting the development of public life from a few basic facts: the ability to meet material needs is constrained, education is telescoped, and public engagement is discouraged.

One possible insight is that these three elements characterize many revolutionary situations in history, from Russia in 1917 to Iran in 1979. Literate people with an excess of free time and expectations beyond the resources they have available are indeed likely to generate explanations for their unsatisfying conditions, and explanations of this type are indeed likely to produce demands that are incompatible with the existing political order. This could be a more probable scenario when political structures appear to be constructed with the goal of excluding the public.

Another possible scenario may be that people with more training than opportunity create new opportunities for themselves, which could be legal or illegal in character. This may be a reason why innovation in crime often derives from countries where much economic activity relies on a single commodity controlled by a narrow elite. In Nigeria, where oil production and export is tightly controlled by a cartel, a large population participates in the wealth that is produced almost exclusively through education and technical training. Why has a well-known e-mail scam come to be associated with that country? Because it has produced a lot of people who are familiar with computers and do not have a legal source of income. Serbia’s cartel commodity, political patronage, is more abstract and less lucrative than oil, but the dynamic is similar.

The general impression one gets from the research on youth is the emergence of a large group of people who do not trust institutions and try to build their lives outside of them. They could function as citizens but are obstructed in this ambition. Their state and parties are self-serving and self-sufficient, and do not want them. 

Eric Gordy is Senior Lecturer in South East European Politics at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies (SSEES) at University College, London.

[1] Republika Srbija, Republički zavod za statistiku, Popis stanovništva, domaćinstava i stanova 2011. godine u Republici Srbiji, Knjiga 2: Starost i pol. Beograd: RZS, December 2012.

[2] Republika Srbija, Republički zavod za statistiku, Anketa o radnoj snazi, 2011. Beograd: RZS, 2012.

[3] Ibid., p. 16.

[4] Ibid., p. 35.

[5] Ibid., p. 83.

[6] Smiljka Tomanović, Dragan Stanojević, Isidora Jarić, Dušan Mojić, Slađana Dragišić Labaš, Milana Ljubišić and Ivana Živadinović, Mladi – Naša sadašnjost: Istraživanje socijalnih biografija mladih u Srbiji. Beograd: Čigoja štampa, 2012.

[7] Tomanović, “Od omladine do socijanih biografija mladih u postsocijalističkoj transformaciji društva Srbije: Konceptualni i kontekstualni okvir istraživanja,” in op. cit., p. 37.

[8] Ibid, p. 39.

[9] Stanojević, “Obeležja društvenog položaja mladih,” in Tomanović, et. al., p. 59.

[10] Ibid., p. 65.

[11] Isidora Jarić and Ivana Živadinović, “Politička aktivnost mladih,” in Tomanović, et. al., p. 185.

[12] Isidora Jarić and Ivana Živadinović, “Socijalni aktivizam kao oblik političkog angažmana,” in Tomanović, et. al., p. 201.

[13] The authors make a gesture in this direction, identifying what they label a new “cyborg sensibility” emerging among young people (Ibid, p. 210).