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How can Europe save its lost generation?

New ideas to tackle youth unemployment are sorely needed, and are most likely to spring from young people themselves

Maria Fanjul

Published: Updated:

In my country, Spain, youth unemployment has reached the remarkable rate of 57%. Many of the young people affected worry that when the economy eventually recovers, companies will turn straight to new graduates and bypass them, however talented they may be.

To stop this happening, we need tools to prevent young people’s talents from going to waste, and creative ways to give them confidence to find their own solutions. Part of the solution must be to promote youth entrepreneurship and rethink education.

While my own background is in nurturing new businesses, I believe we are generally too risk-averse in Spain. At school, we are often too scared to raise our hands and ask questions. In the workplace, we often feel afraid of putting new ideas into practice, because the reaction to trying and failing is typically to point the finger of blame rather than to learn lessons and try again.

Lack of a culture of entrepreneurship

The obstacles don’t stop in the classroom or workplace. When I ran a company helping Spanish tech entrepreneurs make links with Silicon Valley, I realized that our lack of a culture of entrepreneurship meant that no support network existed in Spain for fast-growing companies, once their revenues pass a million euros a year. At this stage, problems change from those faced by early-stage start-ups. How do you reach international markets? How do you hire and retain talent? How do you make that step up to becoming a really significant contributor to employment and national wealth?

While government and the private sector can and should help, much of the solution is in our own hands.

Maria Fanjul

To answer those questions, it helps to exchange ideas with other entrepreneurs, and to lobby for legislative changes that will allow small and medium sized enterprises to flourish. So I set up a new group for Spanish entrepreneurs to do just that.

Since the crisis began, entrepreneurship among young people has been on the rise, with the number of companies created increasing by 8.2% in the first half of 2013 compared with the same period in 2012. That’s a good thing – but without the right legislative, fiscal and financial conditions these new companies will not go the distance.

One way we can encourage entrepreneurship is to increase the financing available for start-ups through public-private cooperation: as youth unemployment is already a burden on public funds, why not use those public funds to back businesses? Government could partner with angel investors and venture capitalists – guided, of course, by metrics to establish whether businesses have a positive impact on the economy and that can help pull the plug on loans that are not working.

To create the next generation of entrepreneurs, we need to start even earlier. Schoolchildren need role models who have followed through with their ideas and made their own way – not necessarily to riches, but to the more universally achievable goal of making a living from something they enjoy.

We also need urgently to rethink higher education, which has been practically unchanged for generations; while it may once have made sense to elevate the lecturer – literally and metaphorically – onto a stage to dispense wisdom, it no longer fits the labour market those students will graduate into. We need new models of education that focus on developing skills to analyse the masses of information we can now generate and access, and use that to create and implement ideas.

New ideas to tackle youth unemployment are sorely needed, and are most likely to spring from young people themselves, since they are both most likely to be suffering the consequences of the scourge and to be adept at today’s high-tech, highly networked approach.

With the aim of exploring new solutions and, most importantly, making them a reality, the World Economic Forum’s community of leaders under the age of 30, the Global Shapers, recently held an event called Shape Europe. It involved “Shape-a-thons” (similar to hackathons in the tech world), where participants from 27 different cities shared their ideas and worked together in small groups to turn their thoughts into real, doable projects.

Ideas included encouraging companies to run small projects to recruit new employees, rather than relying only on CVs – because, in the current climate, even great candidates may not have built up a great CV. In this way companies find stronger employees, and unsuccessful candidates at least get a learning experience from the recruiting process.

The Global Shapers are also piloting workshops in schools to foster entrepreneurial attitudes among 15-18 year olds, offering coding lessons for 9-16 year olds, and creating hubs for university researchers to help them pitch their ideas to businesses.

The broader goal is to motivate and encourage young Europeans to remember our many advantages: a grasp of life-changing technologies, often a command of languages, and the willingness to travel. While government and the private sector can and should help, much of the solution is in our own hands.

This article was first published in the WEF Blog on Jan. 23, 2013.

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Maria Fanjul is Chief Executive Officer of Entradas and a World Economic Forum Global Shaper. She is a former: Co-Founder, StepOne, helping over 200 start-ups establish in Silicon Valley; Board Member, idealista.com, a leading online real estate portal with a team of 70 people. At age 28, became CEO of entradas.com, the leading ticketing portal and one of the top e-commerce companies in Spain. Member, Executive Committee, Spain Startup & Investor Summit. Mentor, IE Business School. Lecturer, ICADE and ESIC universities. Co-Founder, Chamberi Valley, a networking initiative focused on helping consolidated entrepreneurs learn from each other while working with local and national institutions to create an entrepreneurial ecosystem in Spain. Interests: technology and the power of young people to make the world a better place.

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