This is a guest post by Michael Hendrix, director for research and emerging issues at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation’s Emerging Issues program.
Sweden is a nation of young Adams cast out of a socialist Eden. Employment protection laws—meant to protect against market travails—represent the original sin, only serving to throw up walls around permanent jobs. The young people that took to the streets of suburban Stockholm this May with covered faces and clenched hands, throwing rocks and shouting curses against the state, have been effectively banished from the garden and left to work where no work can be found.
Official unemployment may be low in Sweden, but the numbers deceive. There’s a vast underclass of youth and immigrants with nowhere to go and nothing to do. Nearly 24% of Sweden’s youth are unemployed, but even that’s too low. Some 77,000 more haven’t studied or worked in the past 3 years. In the mostly immigrant Stockholm suburb of Husby, where the riots first began, official unemployment is pegged at 38% for those under 26.
Here’s another number you should know: 2.5%. That’s the portion of jobs in Sweden that are low-wage and entry-level. That’s a picture of where opportunity should be, but isn’t. Europe’s average sits at 17%, and that’s across a continent that’s home to vast numbers of unemployed youth in places such as Spain and Italy.
Since they lack entry-level work, Sweden’s young people instead rely on short-term contracts or internships. Employers are loath to keep even young graduates on for anything longer than six months, since at that point they must be made permanent. A heavy and costly burden of employment protections and welfare provisions are then foisted on the employer. All with the best of intentions, mind you. The employers are big and rich and can afford these protections, the Swedes say, except they aren’t and they can’t. And God help the young person who’s been hired, since he or she is now the first in line (by law) to be let go when tough times come.
What about those who could find work but can’t? Sweden’s high minimum wage effectively price out the rest of those who could otherwise fill low skilled jobs. It’s hardly surprising that Sweden is also one of the most expensive places to live in the world.
Sweden’s youth are rioting because they lack earned success. Arthur Brooks has worked hard to flesh out this concept of “defining your future as you see fit and achieving that success on the basis of merit and hard work.” To be satisfied with your work requires a certain justification for it, which in turns rests on your own labor. To be denied this opportunity by a protective government only yields a bitter irony.
You can hardly blame poverty for this anger, since it barely exists in Sweden, or inequality, which is markedly lower than elsewhere in Europe. As Johan Norberg wrote about Sweden in The Spectator:
A government can supply you with goods and services, but not with self-worth and the respect of others. A government can fulfill all your material needs, but it can’t give you the sense that you accomplished this yourself.
A government can buy away poverty but still not gain happiness. Sweden’s government actually realizes this now, with Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt cutting the size of government while encouraging rates of economic growth that outpace much of the rest of Europe. Nevertheless, Sweden’s youth remain in the suffocating embrace of the same laws meant to protect them. Combined with a toxic mix of resentments accumulated among Sweden’s many immigrant communities, you got the riots that erupted in Stockholm’s streets in late May. The only answer to the rioter, it seems, is a taste of hard-won opportunity.
Am I alone in thinking that Europe’s vast underclass of unemployed and disaffected youths are, deep down, longing for hard work and opportunity?