The Future They Want

Making Sense of Youth Aspirations in East and Southeast Europe
TEXT: Zenebe B. Uraguchi – 17. December 2018

The dreams and priorities of young people have shifted over time compared to their parents and grandparents. The cover picture for this article, a poster from Kosovo by Helvetas, shows such shifts in aspirations of young people (Grandmother: "I was in charge of the housework", Mother: "I took kids to school", Daugther: "I bring companies to the World Wide Web"). I was born in a region of Ethiopia that was at the epicenter of the 1984 famine. The “We’re the World” charity song is a constant reminder of the struggle, then and now. Different from the Helveta’s poster in this article, we used to have many billboards of development organizations, some showing emaciated and near-death babies and others calling for the need to work hard and not to rely on “foreign aid”. As a child, I aspired to escape the poverty and become someone. That was many years ago…  

In general, aspirations represent a relatively abstract, idealistic plan of a person’s desire or hope to achieve high levels of education or employment. The transition from youth to adulthood is marked by refinement of self-concepts and life ambitions. The question, however, is: are we taking seriously the aspirations of young people? Or for that matter, do we really know what young people aspire for?

To answer these important questions, I rely on two recent national surveys in Kosovo and Bosnia & Herzegovina about young people’s aspirations. The survey in Kosovo, completed in March 2018, focused on 1,218 respondents between the age of 12-24. The Bosnian survey, conducted in late 2017, targeted 6,179 respondents (60% of whom were aged between 15 and30). I also bring into the picture a smaller study conducted in November 2018 in Dibra region, one of the poorest areas of Albania.

Aspirations are about tangible and intangible gains….

For young people in Bosnia & Herzegovina, income has been ranked as the most important factor in considering what to study or what kind of job to get. Young people with higher educational level are willing to work for higher income. They’d also be less willing to work outside of their formal educational field compared to those with lower level of education. The findings at regional level in Albania, on the other hand, showed that 80% of youth respondents have very high aspirations for getting university education and prefer to find jobs in the capital city (Tirana), or aim to work abroad.

However, this isn’t the only thing that matters for young people. Dignity and purpose, and ultimately integrating into society through employment are also essential parts of aspirations. To a greater degree than their peers in Bosnia & Herzegovina and Albania, more than 80% of young people in Kosovo believe in individual abilities and preferences as important influencers.

That said, understanding better the aspirations of young people need a couple of considerations, which development programs seem, wrongly, to take for granted.

First, young people remain a highly diverse group of people, with different backgrounds, drivers and experiences leading to varying ideas, aspirations and challenges. Young people represent elements of both privilege (for some) and marginality (for many). As a case in point, young people growing up or living in rural and urban areas have different experiences that shape their vision of education and employment. For example, youth from rural areas (villages and suburban types of settlement) in Bosnia & Herzegovina prefer to work in production and processing of fruits and vegetables compared to those who live in the cities with more than 100,000 inhabitants. Along gender, young women in Kosovo are more likely to make their mind quite at an early stage regarding their decisions about their future work or study route compared to young men. Therefore, generalizations about the attitudes, beliefs and behaviors that surround aspirations in diverse youth groups aren’t helpful.

Second, successive generations have simply thrown criticism against young people for being unrealistically aspiring. We hear, time and again, that modern-day young people are gadget-obsessed and inclined to cosmopolitan lifestyle – that is, having the feeling of entitlement to everything without giving much in return. As is the case in the survey in Kosovo, 80% of young people are confident about their knowledge of what areas they’re interested in working and/or studying. However, with the changing nature of the future of work, education and employment landscapes are getting more complex for young people to navigate.

…. and aspirations are shaped by a range of factors  

Factors affecting aspirations, whether from family, schools or peers tend to be consistent and strong, pushing young people towards or away from the fulfilment of their aspirations.

As a critical factor, parental influence can be both constructive (e.g. encouragement and practical support), and negative (e.g. excessive pressure to succeed often based on long-held, wrong perceptions). Close to 55% of parents in Kosovo want their children to have an academic-oriented occupation like law, medicine, social or hard sciences. This re-affirms the wider societal prejudice against technical oriented jobs. Although parents recognize the employment value of vocational education, they would still like their children to take up “prestigious” professions.

Both parental occupation and parental education also affect choices. Particularly, low family income seems to restrict young people’s options by forcing them to abandon plans to continue school or pursue additional training. There’s a general expectation that young people in academic-oriented schools with parents of higher socio-economic status will likely choose an academic route for themselves instead of vocational education and training. This was clear in Kosovo: 60% of children whose parents work in healthcare sector are more willing to continue their education by choosing an academic route.  

Living with parents or in a family also seems to have an impact. According to employers in Albania, young people living in a family are more willing to undertake a job and stay longer in a job. Others stay only for 3-4 months and then leave. In addition, most of young people in Bosnia & Herzegovina would like to work in public companies/organizations. This could be due to long-held perceptions among families in the country regarding higher job security in the public than in the private sector.  

An important area that shapes aspirations of young people is the role played by education institutions. They can support aspiration development by providing a network of peers and teachers who contribute positively to future aspirations. They also give young people a positive comparative network whom they might aspire to emulate. However, only 2% of students in Kosovo said a teacher affected their career decision the most. In Bosnia & Herzegovina, on the other hand, preferences of positions in a sector is influenced by the educational system and curricula. Within the IT sector, for example, there appears to be somewhat greater interest in positions in software development than in hardware development or technical and support services. This was also true in Albania – the majority young people aspire to be IT specialists.  

While family and schools remain the most used sources of guidance when choosing an educational or career path, influence from friends as well as the internet and social online networks are increasingly becoming important. Close to 40% of respondents in Kosovo made decisions on what to study based on advice received from a friend.

The rural-urban divide is also a factor. In Bosnia & Herzegovina, young people from big cities are more likely to aspire for better education and hence better employment than those from smaller towns, suburban areas and villages. In addition, young people from cities with more than 100,000 inhabitants are significantly more willing to take additional training if there’s a job opportunity compared to those who live in villages. In Kosovo, students living in urban areas have higher rates (62%) of preference for general education (as opposed to vocational education) than those from rural areas (43%).

Yet we need to “mind the gap” between aspirations and realities  

At the heart of youth aspirations are some big questions. How realistic are young people when it comes to their choice of career and education? What other considerations should young people make to successfully enter/re-enter the labor market? The 2017 ILO’s Youth and the Future of Work Survey showed that over half of the young people in developed countries – and about one-third in emerging and developing countries – view their aspirations with fear or uncertainty.

Until now, we’ve known very little about aspirations of young people across countries in the region. The surveys provide a new insight into matching the aspirations of young people with realities of different dimensions of labor markets – skills, information and investment. The surveys suggest that young people in the region have high aspirations. For example, they want to get high-paying jobs or acquire better skills. The surveys offer little evidence on the existence of “fatalism” in the face of depressed labor markets. In other words, young people don’t simply subject all events or actions of not finding a job to a destiny. If their aspirations aren’t to be met in their country, they seem to see the option of migrating as a last resort. More than 76% young people in Bosnia & Herzegovina are willing to leave their locality and 69% of them would relocate because of employment opportunities. The region is literary “on the move” with the highest figures for migration mainly by young people to Western Europe, North America and Australia.

Overall, the surveys suggest that current generations of youth in the region are better educated than before. However, the jobs matching the skills level of a higher educated workforce are not always there and young people’s pathways into work are changing. This creates a gap between aspirations and achievements. The reason for such a gap has been the failure or underperformance to address education and labor market systems in an integrated way. Practically, this means we need to look at the different dimensions of labor market systems and understand the root causes – from the supply (skills) to intermediation (labor market information and matching services) and demand (investment in job creation).

Let’s take skill shortages or mismatches – that is, available skills aren’t fitting well with the demands of the labor markets. The survey from Bosnia & Herzegovina reveals that one-third of young people working in targeted sectors (e.g. information technology, tourism) don’t have training or education by employers, while 19.1% aren’t sure if their education is related to any of the mentioned sectors. It’s important to define skills as one component of the knowledge system that includes know-how, attitudes and competencies. Skills development goes beyond formal vocational education and training; it includes non-formal types of training. Young people need different types of skills to meet the different challenges in life: foundation skills (e.g. language, literacy and numeracy, basic computer skills), technical skills, and transferable skills (e.g. communication, leadership).

On the flip side, even if young people have appropriate skills, they aren’t spotted by potential employers. There’s often a lack of relevant and adequate information to find a stable, gainful job they really aspire. They also lack affordable and quality career counselling and coaching services. The survey in Kosovo found out that education and career experts seemed to be the least trusted. In Albania, a large segment of young people is infotainment-ready (i.e. digitally native), but they lag far behind in the awareness index regarding what to study or what kind of job to look for. Of course, their parents are also equally uninformed as they greatly influence the decisions of young people.

At the center of the problem has been the absence or underperformance of appropriate matching and job search services. Few employers use the matching services; they prefer to reach out to family and personal networks. The survey from Albania confirms this – employers often use their connections to look for employees without having a process in mind (job description, announcement, skills required, etc.). There’s a lack of support to job matching service providers for positioning, profiling and marketing through the development of demand-based and value-adding services.

In addition, notions of careers and success can be positively influenced by the media.  However, media outlets have little content on employment, entrepreneurship or more generally on business sectors. The media focus is predominantly on entertainment and mainstream politics, and not unemployment even though this is a hot political and social topic. In the survey from Kosovo, young people and their parents don’t seem to trust newspapers, news websites and radio much when it comes to labor market information. One reason is that the media sector lacks the know-how or skills to report on labor market information in a way that is profitable. This’s what the Risi Albania project has successfully addressed.

Of course, one shouldn’t forget about the demand side: institutional barriers (e.g. weak investment climate, viable service markets), leading to weak private sector investment for jobs and higher competition for fewer job opportunities. Addressing the challenges for creating enough and quality jobs requires both favorable policies and regulations and access to relevant and quality services (business, technical and financial). The EYE Kosovo project identified the problem of information moving freely, accurately and completely around the system, because of a lack of interaction between all the actors, but also because some actors benefit from the lack of change. While facilitating different actors to come together and genuinely talk about the issue, the project at the same time achieved government buy-in to expand certification authority at training institutions and identified willing business partners to pilot risky strategies for hiring new staff before they’re qualified. Another example is the MarketMakers project in Bosnia & Herzegovina. The project facilitated changes through effective strategy for the promotion of the IT sector and a support system for influencing regulatory and policy environment.

The bigger picture  

What do we make of the aspirations of young people in East and Southeast Europe? Below are three points that I hope will get you thinking about the future of education and employment that young people aspire.

First, aspirations have been high but uneven among young people in East and Southeast Europe. Aspirations draw upon personal characteristics and preferences of young people, but they’re also economically and socially influenced. Young people don’t live in isolation from different socio and economic contexts. However, widening differences between aspirations and limited availability of opportunities tend to contribute to deepening social and economic inequality.   

Second, higher aspirations of most young people aren’t realistic. I mean aspirations aren’t formed, experienced and deployed as a realistic orientation to the future of education and the labor market. In other words, there’s a disconnect between aspirations and the practical knowledge and self-belief to achieve them. While most young people remain optimistic, the opportunities to succeed are limited. There’s a mismatch between the types of industries and occupations young people would like to go into, against the demands and opportunities that exist for them in the education and the labor market. This isn’t about simply comparing aspirations against the number of young people at school or transitioning from school to employment, but how the labor market systems can be improved to absorb the increasing number of ambitious young people. It’s also possible that the jobs that young people will end up doing may not yet exist. A word of caution here: it’s probably less helpful to “reorient unrealistic aspirations” of young people. Rather the focus should be to support young people to achieve what they aspire for.

Third, aspirations are complex and require informed support. Labor market surveys don’t provide sufficient information for designing and monitoring responses on the burning issue of youth unemployment. Surveys must be backed up with good analysis to understand the incentives and capacities of different actors, including young people. By good analysis, I mean one that serves as a filter, starting with understanding the wider socio-economic context and then narrowing down the focus of analysis to identify specific constraints of realizing aspirations of young people. In addition, a good analysis isn’t a one-off study but should build on continuous understanding through appropriate information to shape decision-making and informed actions.

To conclude, so many years after leaving rural Ethiopia, I can relate to the aspirations and frustrations of many young people that I often meet in my work as a development practitioner – both in East and Southeast Europe and beyond. In the morning on a working day, cafés are full of young people. For unsuspecting outsiders, this may appear a normal routine. Many of the young women and men milling around cafés have good education, including university qualifications. In most cases, the subjects that they studied aren’t demanded in the labor market. In addition, they don’t have job that attracts them and provides them with quality employment. Without an integrated approach to address root causes, the impact of long-term unemployment can be devastating and have long-lasting impacts, putting social cohesion at risk.

About the author

This article appeared in the December 2018 issue of Helvetas Mosaic.