“Covid-19 restrictions will have long-term consequences on youth movements”

Op-ed by Dr Kostis Kornetis, Teaching Associate in Modern European History at the History Department of Sheffield University

News / 30.6.20

Dr Kostis Kornetis, Teaching Associate at the University of Sheffield, was the first expert we invited for our online Conversations on Youth Participation

On 1 May 2020, the Communist Youth of Greece gathered in the Syntagma Square, as part of the Labour Day parade. The way in which they did it was exemplary: they kept distances and wore masks.

However, there is something military about this kind of action; a military or militaristic discipline, which normally does not characterise such youth groups. The restrictions put in place by European governments to try and contain the spread of the pandemic will have long-term consequences on youth movements. And this, especially if there will be a second wave of the pandemic with another set of measures, possibly even more restrictive than the previous one. What is lost right now is a very tangible and corporeal element in movements: the proximity of bodies, the very physicality of street activism, marching together. Therefore, in affective, emotional terms as well the price is high right now for people who were ready to go out in the streets. However, we know that the moment grievances come to the maximum, the structure of feeling that characterises social and youth movements comes back with a vengeance. This we have witnessed from repressive systems or violent pasts in which social movements were banned from the public sphere, in Southern Europe, Latin America, Southeast Asia, or elsewhere. In other words, movements will suffer for a bit, but they are an organic element in the body politic in modern democracies and they will no doubt reappear reinforced, sooner or later.

“We are facing serious re-distributional problems among generations.”

Beyond youth movements, the current pandemic will hit the youth hard in terms of employment opportunities. Some days of anger and rage are to be expected. The White Book of the European Commission reported some time ago that there is a risk that every new generation of young people lives worse than their parents in the Union. Research opportunities, scholarships, youth investment will all be cut in the aftermath, or the continuation, of the Covid19 crisis. We are facing serious re-distributional problems among generations. This problem has been going on for decades, the current crisis is just exacerbating it. We might see a bras de fer between currently unemployed 35-year-olds and the younger cohort fresh out of their studies, looking for a job.

The lessons learned from the 2009 economic crisis, which was a big shock in Greece and Spain especially, is that what will happen in societal terms depends on how solid institutions and political systems, and welfare and labor markets are, as well as how they are going to respond to this incredible challenge.

Disaffection and malaise politique are to be expected. Precarious work will reinforce these tendencies: precarity again pre-existed the Covid19 crisis but it will no doubt rise because of it. It remains to be seen to what extent this is going to fuel radicalisation and even street protest. Some surveys with young people a couple of years ago in France, around the time of the Nuit Debout movement, showed that a relatively high percentage of youngsters agreed with the fact that political violence can be justified. Protest traditions also play a role in how people will respond to challenges: France rates high in this respect, Greece as well.

“What will happen in societal terms depends on how solid institutions and political systems, and welfare and labor markets are, as well as how they are going to respond to this incredible challenge”

Beyond this, there are other factors that play a role here. For instance, the degree of social protection in each country. German or French social protection is much wider than in Spain, Portugal, or Greece for that matter. But there is no monocausal explanation: we saw recently how Extinction Rebellion and the general environmental movement blossomed in countries like the United Kingdom or Germany.

The reason for this is that we are dealing with a new political generation, which will experience the double dramatic consequences of the environmental crisis and the youth unemployment crisis triggered by the pandemic. Until recently the cohort between 26-34 was the one who got more politically involved than the 18-25-year-olds. This might change now, and the moment that political opportunities and mobilising structures will lead to the eruption of protest among those younger cohorts as well.

On the other hand, as seen in places with high unemployment like Spain in the past, political apathy and cynicism also tend to emerge among young people in precarious situations, who feel frustrated and unable to express their grievances or redress the situation that they are in.  The explosive situation that we are going to be living in will offer enough incentives for these youngsters to participate politically too. Also, because many of them will feel precarious, endangered, frustrated, and left out of the political system.

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