Unemployment in Europe is a moral issue
When unemployment in Europe reaches intolerable figures, especially among young people, it is necessary to remember, as Pope Francis does, the moral dignity of work.
According to Eurobarometer, the survey of public opinion in the European Union, the main concern for Europeans is clearly unemployment (48%, an increased of 2% since the last survey). For 25,5 million, it is more than a ‘concern’ but a bitter daily reality: they have to cope without a job. Among them, approximately 6 million are people under 25 years old.
It is true that the situation is not identical all over the EU. While Austria with a tiny 4,9% or Germany with 5,4% unemployment show a healthy position, Greece (27,0%), Spain (26,8%) or Portugal (17,8%) are in a critical situation. The divergences show that European integration is far from achieved, and that the economies of the member States are still divergent. People are helpless in face of the unprecedented destruction of employment and the inability of the authorities to provide a response. On the contrary, the public sector is one of the major causes of unemployment as drastic cuts in public budgets are applied. We talk about a "lost generation", that is, the people between 25-35 years old that at present have enormous difficulties in finding suitable employment, so that their future careers are jeopardised to develop a career.
In the midst of this crisis the words of Pope Francis have powerfully resonated as he recalls the priority of labour over other elements of economic activity. Pope Francis has connected with one of the most treasured themes of Catholic Social Teaching, the humanising role of human labour. John Paul II, in his encyclical ‘Laborem Exercens’ (1981) wrote a hymn to the distinctive and crucial role of labour in economic relations. Contrary to the liberal capitalist theory, endemic in university faculties, that considers labour as a mere factor that is adjusted according the law of supply and demand, Catholic Social Teaching claims the uniqueness of human work as a moral value that builds dignity and places humans close to the experience of God as creator.
Pope Francis restates this paramount role of work in dignifying the person. He characterises unemployment as a source of indignity, marginalisation and social exclusion. He also recognises the enormous value of work as an opportunity for creativity and transformation. He invites young people to confront these difficult times and to develop an active hope and commitment. Finally, in a very strong statement, he refers to "slave labour" as the ultimate link in a descending chain of human moral degradation.
The message of the Pope joins the voices with all those in Europe who are calling for a more decisive public action on unemployment. The present measures of austerity are devastating for millions of citizens. The demands for huge budget cuts, the credit crunch and the strength of the currency that limits exports, all these impose an enormous burden that is dividing Europe into two: the Europe that creates jobs and the Europe that loses them.
We are witnessing profound changes in our economic model, and human labour is one of the most vulnerable issues. The speed of job-destruction is much higher than the capacity of our economies to create new jobs, and the trend seems to grow. Productivity increases reduce labour demands, and globalisation puts European workers in a clear competitive disadvantage against workers from emerging economies that have much less social protection and lower wages. The adaptation of workers to new jobs –as the economic theory states - has limits related to training, the unfairness of being forced into less favourable working conditions or sheer impossibility in case of the displacement of jobs offshore, or the obstacles to changing a family’s place of residence.
At least before the EU Summit at the end of June, responses from the European institutions have been minor and slow compared with the magnitude of the challenge, while the social mechanisms to cope with this situation are stretched to the limits. The solution is not easy, and the temptation is to look for short term palliatives instead to look for long term changes that can attract the necessary broad consensus.
José Ignacio García SJ