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You’re still young, that’s your fault? The concept of the young worker in EU Law

The Setting

The young people of Europe carried a large share of the economic downturn in the euro-crisis. A flood of youth unemployment brought young workers to the legislative agenda on the national and European level.

In July 2013, EU youth unemployment stood at a maximum of 24%, peaking in Greece with 62,9%. The adverse effects did not stop there: 17,5% of young Europeans between 15 and 25 were neither in education, employment nor training, as well as atypical work situations were (and still are) a feature of youth employment. Although youth employment was less affected in some Member States, the picture emerging from the crisis is shattering and even exacerbated when thinking about youth unemployment in the long run. Indeed, early unemployment lowers the chances of becoming employed over time, the so-called effect of ‘scarcification’. Integration into the labour market resembles to a window of opportunity: either the young person finds employment on its ‘other side’ or the window closes with time and they will continue struggling.

The Claim

The Council of the Union recognized the importance of this window of opportunity and urged that a young, lost and vulnerable” generation was “hit particularly hard during the crisis”. This is the factual setting for my PhD project and starting with this recent EU activity, I will explore the concept of the young worker and its labour market integration as represented and shaped by Union law. My main claim is that the integration of young workers is not only influenced nationally, but that Union law offers multiple figures, or statuses of the ‘young worker’ which, in turn, influence their integration into the labour market. The term ‘figures’ transmits that the Union’s vision of young workers is not uniform, but rather constituted by a multitude of legal sources of diverging pedigrees. 

The Young Worker

Though, the definition of what characterizes a ‘young worker’ is a difficult one. Is it age? Their living or working conditions? Legally speaking, neither EU nor national law propose a uniform definition of the young worker, but rather advance a multitude of views. Defining what constitutes the young worker, thus, sets the scene for understanding the legal sources of the concept and their implications on the young worker.

Preliminarily, the definition of the young worker should relate to a broader concept than simply young people working under a relationship of subordination. Work by young workers is often characterized by instability and precarity as they are transitioning from education to work or between their first employments. Moreover, young age discrimination is a widespread phenomenon as they are considered to lack practical expertise. The concept of the young worker surely includes young economically active people like those in formal employment relationships, the young self-employed or jobseekers. Relationships on the boundary of young work, such as traineeships and apprenticeships, should be included as they factually constitute a working contribution to society. My definition of the young worker is thus factual. On the other, labour market integration should be understood as a process and not an irrevocable step in the transition to adulthood. Most young workers are not simply thrown into working life but undergo a process of specialization through education and training that determines their prospects as young workers. More specifically, this excludes primary and secondary general education, but includes tertiary education and professional training, which are often intertwined with periods of work. Such young persons will be considered as soon-to-be-workers and cannot be left out when analysing the
concept of the young worker as a set of socio-legal statuses that determine integration into the labour market.

Tracing Young Workers in EU Law

To conclude, my project was designed with two research aims. First, it shall expose how EU law shapes the statuses of young workers, hence how it possesses a multitude of approaches to young workers that determine their living and working conditions in different ways. Second, this finding shall expose the progressive, but inconsistent construction of the status of the young worker in EU law after its first appearance in the 1957 Treaty of Rome. Thus, it is also a project about the evolution of EU law and its often inconsistent constructions in different fields of law.