* Erasmus Generation Perspective articles are written by ESN volunteers with the aim to share the student voice on current policy developments in the field of international education. The text represents the individual perspective of the author, and not an official statement of the Erasmus Student Network.
In August 2019, the long-anticipated work-life balance directive entered into force in the European Union. This piece of legislation sets out targets for Member States of the EU to strike a balance between workers’ professional and private lives, with improving access to family leave and flexible work arrangements. In the same vein, could students at some point benefit from an environment where working and pursuing a degree could be seen as a complement to one another, rather than a zero-sum game?
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, youth unemployment figures were certainly showcasing a calm before the storm, with a record low of 14.9% of young people being unemployed. This was an optimistic figure considering that the aftermath of the 2008 crisis this figure was nearly 25% in 2013. While being made redundant hurts everyone who goes through it, young people have faced the challenge of being on the receiving end of the “last one in, first one out” treatment and possibly not even having worked enough time to qualify for unemployment benefits.
These numbers are even more concerning when taking into account that working while studying has become more widespread over time and reached 45% in 2016. While this fact could be explained by more flexibility provided by education institutions to pursue extra-curricular activities or traineeships were integrated into part of the curriculum, it could also mean that young people are forced to work to make ends meet. Moreover, the short term jobs that students could normally take up during summer holidays such as bartending or working in hospitality may not be there waiting for them once the season finally arrives.
On the other hand, if for the remaining 55% who did not work during studying, we think of education as the stepping stone to enter the workforce, then in the current climate, education policymakers have their work cut out for them. If up until now, a university has been informed by the reality of the labour market for example by establishing university-business collaboration or providing international exchange programmes to encourage seeking out employment opportunities abroad, then the challenges ahead will require a completely new perspective.
In the end, education institutions may also feel that their hands are tied. The European Youth Forum has noted that transitions from studies to working have become longer. While they can provide top-notch career services, international exchanges and make internships a mandatory part of the curriculum, they cannot prepare their students for jobs that simply ceased to exist. Despite this, institutions gather data on the employment rate of their graduates, meaning they are obviously aware of the issues facing young people and should thus advocate for policies which effectively reduce youth unemployment. For example, the Erasmus+ Impact Study from 2019 shows that students who take part in an Erasmus+ traineeship placement have higher chances to find a job after graduation.
Optimistically, if education institutions made a greater effort to ensure work-study balance by including distance study or sitting exams on weekends in their programmes, then young people could build themselves a safety net by having connections and experience when graduating, not to mention the added financial perk. In cases where young people have student loans, this is especially crucial, as graduating with debt as there is a looming economic crisis, their welfare is seriously threatened.
However, whether intended or not, the current educational landscape has provided this flexibility. While students have been forced to adapt to remote classes, many employers have had to make similar changes to the way they function. As a result, remote work has also become the new normal, which has opened up opportunities for people to start a new job that would have otherwise been impossible due to distance or schedule clashes. The European Commission has recognised that students should not have to sacrifice one or the other, and within the new Erasmus programme, participants can opt for short term mobility, which will be complemented with virtual learning. As the new programme takes off, this gives hope that working students will even have the option to participate in learning mobility.
Even if we try to find the silver lining to being able to do everything from anywhere as long as we have a computer and an internet connection, we also have to check in with ourselves and make sure that between the work-life-study et cetera that now has all converged at home, we do not forget about the ‘balance’ part. While not everyone can have it all, we can at least develop policies which empower everyone to define their own ‘all’.