In dealing with the Covid-19 crisis, it is young people that have been sacrificed more than others in France.
According to an Arab proverb, “There are two things that we only appreciate when we lose them: good health and youth”. In 2020, France lost its good health by proving unable to control the Covid-19 epidemic. In 2021, it is in danger of losing its youth – its young people.
The pandemic has been a brutal eye-opener for French people who have seen that their healthcare system has become degraded – a system that they had wrongly thought was one of the best in the world. It has also opened young people’s eyes by bringing home the truth of the collapse of the educational system and the value of the qualifications it provides. School closures during the first lockdown and then the generalization of distance learning, particularly at university level, have caused mass de-schooling and desocialization. Social and geographical inequality has increased hugely. The best illustration of this is in the classes préparatoires [courses of study preparing high school graduates for entry to the grandes écoles, elite establishments parallel to the university system] for the grandes écoles – which only take 5% of students from underprivileged families – whilst the universities have turned to distance learning, which has caused two-thirds of students to drop out after their first year. Training courses and job offers have also been largely put on hold, which has meant that the number of young people unemployed has risen to 22/1%, as compared to 17.7% in the EU and 18.4% in the euro zone.
Young people, largely unaffected by the epidemic, are therefore highly exposed to the educational, economic and social crisis. Psycho-social damage is already coming to light, with large numbers of cases of distress linked to isolation and the absence of student jobs, cases of depression, and suicide attempts. It has to be said that the future of a whole generation has been compromised. Young people should be entering the labor market, but whole sectors of the economy are at a standstill – the hospitality industry, tourism, events, culture and sport – and, when government aid is inevitably withdrawn, there will be bankruptcies and redundancy. Mid-term prospects offer no consolation: young French people will inherit wrecked education and healthcare systems, a downgraded and truncated production sector, a heavy environmental liability, the burden of an untenable public and private debt (120% of GDP for government debt, and 160% of GDP for private enterprise at the end of 2020), and long-term restrictions placed on freedom because of a permanent state of emergency.
It is a terrible mistake for France to abandon its young people. The high birth rate, that was a major asset during the first decade of the century, fell to 740,000 in 2020, i.e. a rate of 1.74 children for each woman as opposed to 2.1 in 2006. There has also been a fall in the skills level on the labor market (18% of people in employment do not have the qualifications needed for their job), which is a factor unique to France. The second report from the National Productivity Council shows that this is the main cause of the slowdown in growth and the lack of competitiveness in companies. We are now facing the risk of falling into the same category as Italy where, since 2008, two million young people – notably graduates – have chosen to go abroad.
This makes the indifference shown by Emmanuel Macron and his government towards young people and universities even more inexplicable. The announcement of meals priced at 1 euro in university restaurants and the availability of psychologists to help students is no answer to the problem. These costly social measures are totally ineffective because they do not deal with the roots of the problem…
It is high time we stopped considering young people and universities as non-essential. Just like secondary school students or those in classes préparatoires, university students need to attend classes and benefit from teaching that is only effective and meaningful if given in person, to see their work and knowledge approved by qualified people who are not just names on a piece of paper. Priority must be given to investing public money in teaching that – with the exception of research work – cannot be distance learning. It is a question of universities reorganizing their space (of which they have an abundance) and reorganizing their classes. Bureaucrats in national education and in universities must stop working on closing establishments and concentrate on re-opening them quickly, in compliance with the sanitary regulations forced on us by an epidemic that may be long-lasting. As a final point, there should be maximum flexibility with regard to training courses and apprenticeships, as well as aid to businesses for the employment of young people within the context of a recovery plan.
In a knowledge-based economy, the principal factor affecting productivity is human capital. Playing havoc with young people is the best way of destroying it. Our young people do not need psychologists and subsidized meals as much as they need classes, respected qualifications, and work – i.e. they need a future. Instead of being infantilized and marginalized, they should occupy a central place in the new social contract that is indispensable for the reconstruction of France.
(Article pubished in Le Point, 28th January 2021)