Economy Social Issues

Social unrest: The street bankers

11 August 2011
Der Standard Vienna

Lisbon, May 2011. Portuguese and Spanish youths camp at Rossio Square in Lisbon to protest against economic conditions and unemployment in their countries.

Lisbon, May 2011. Portuguese and Spanish youths camp at Rossio Square in Lisbon to protest against economic conditions and unemployment in their countries.

Europe is bailing out its financial centres, but not its youth. Three basic conditions – education, employment and housing – are denied them. So when they fight back, says Der Standard's writer, they're just following the message from the top: take what you can and get out.

The world's youth show precious little homogeneity as a social group, and they're not a financial sector poised on the edge of bankruptcy. Too bad for them. Otherwise emergency parachutes would have been handed out long ago and national and international consortiums would have pumped billions into training them, creating jobs and affordable housing for them and securing a future for all – just the future envisaged in the so-called ‘generational contract’ between those of working and retirement ages.

But an inability or unwillingness among politicians to create consensus in these key areas is eroding away the foundations of affluent societies, whose citizens are increasingly turning into mere onlookers in a cheerful, increasingly elitist capitalism. Capitalism is only tolerable so long as it offers the possibility to share in it. But now this fickle plaything of the free markets, it’s losing its appeal: it's a discontinued model with nothing else next to it on the shelf. For young people taking a place in society for the first time, this breeds uncertainty, scepticism, and fear of the future. And those who takes away from the young their prospects and opportunities for the future will eventually find them at the door in their thousands, demanding them back.

Countries such as Greece, Spain, Chile, Israel and Great Britain are currently going through such experiences with varying degrees of passion. As different from country to country as the motives behind the sometimes violent protests may be, they still all come down to basic demands: open access to education, the desire for work and for a place to live.

But standing in the way of those needs, which are really fundamental rights, are obstacles that the young of today either cannot overcome, or do not wish to. In some cities of Britain and Israel, having a good education and a job no longer means you can afford an apartment, let alone a school for your children.

Governments are showering billions into the markets with one hand to keep our resident devil, the Dow Jones, happy. With the other, they’re slashing social benefits. That policies of this sort are received as pure cynicism in countries like Spain, Greece and Britain, where youth employment is around 44, 38 and 20 percent respectively, is a puzzle for the minuscule elite, who discuss the difference between frustrated protesters and criminals over tea while worrying only about the state of the money markets.

But value wiped off in the stock markets is nothing compared to decaying social cohesion. If, despite a hard-won education, one sees precious few opportunities for oneself and one’s dreams, eventually Facebook ceases to be an adequate safety valve. Then – as in England – a truly tragic but ultimately mundane reason is enough to unleash all people's pent-up frustrations under cover of the mob. Then people may have just cause to turn into rioters and looters. On a small scale, such chaos merely reflects the example handed down from above: grab what you can and make off with it. In spirit, these are the bankers of the street.

This downward slide can only be stopped by politicians. Not with extra police and empty phrases, but with action. And quickly. But who knows whether the generation demonstrating in the streets will see that day come.

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