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Letter from Poland: Smart, Young, Unemployed - and Leaving

Letter from Poland: Smart, Young, Unemployed - and Leaving
Tue, 3/12/2013 - by Pawel Wita

The unemployment rate for young educated Polish people will hit 30% this year. But Poland remains one of the quietest countries in the region. Nobody protests, because people are leaving.

Anita Budner comes from a small town in western Poland, but has restarted her life in Hamburg, Germany. Budner didn't picture herself leaving her homeland. Yet despite having a good education and a university degree, the lack of opportunities in Poland pushed her to go abroad. And she is not alone.

"Here in Germany right now there is a huge debate to increase the minimum wage from 5 euros to 8.50 euros per hour. I would be incredibly happy if I could find any job in Poland for Germany's current minimum wage,” Budner said. The minimum wage in Poland is 2.50 euros per hour, and there isn't a politician who would consider increasing it.

The generation of Anita's parents taught their children that if they got a higher education they'd have a bright future. Unfortunately, the labor market didn't shift with the huge influx of educated Polish graduates flooding the market. True, their children received an education, but there were no places for them to use it. The promise of social mobility through education was a lie.

Yet, the parents of Poland's young people shouldn't be the ones to blame. Poland's economy enjoyed a huge market advantage for many years due to the country's low labor costs. This didn't change even as the number of young people with higher educations increased to an unprecedented level: from 10% of the population holding university degrees in 1997, to 21% in 2011. Despite the tremendous education shift in just over 10 years, though, the Polish economy itself did not change. Instead of innovations, it stayed focused on manual labor.

So what are these tens of thousands of educated young people to do? In 2004, they gained a new opportunity. Poland joined the European Union and the common European market suddenly began to open up. Thousands of jobs across Europe became available for Polish people, particularly for the young and well-educated who sought to benefit from their knowledge, training and skills, which they could not do in their own country.

And the results of this wave of emigration is reflected in the numbers. In the four years after Poland joined the EU, the unemployment rate decreased from more then 20% to less then 10% - partly because of economic growth, but mostly because of emigration.

The Polish media claims that between the years 2004 and 2008, an estimated 2.2 million Polish citizens left the country. In a country of 38 million, that means that 6% of the entire population left in the span of four years.

There's no single or easy reason to explain why people are leaving en masse from a country that has seen considerable economic growth in recent times. And it isn't as though they don't face great challenges in the countries where they settle. The language barrier is significant, and there is no guarantee that their Polish degrees will help them land good jobs. The British press is full of anecdotes about Polish waitresses with MBA diplomas.

But the reality for many bright young Poles is that their country simply can't provide the opportunities that they can find elsewhere. “I really miss Poland, but there are no prospects. How long would I have to struggle there to be independent?” says Budner.

Her words are confirmed by the numbers; self-sufficiency remains out of reach for the majority of young people, as 56% of young Poles between the ages of 20 and 34 are living with their parents. Even in America, which is experiencing the highest numbers of young people living at home in its history, things are not so bad; the percentage is only 24%, less than half that of Poland.

In Poland's case, the reason for so many stay-at-home youths is as sad as is it simple: Polish salaries aren't high enough to get credit to rent an apartment. Even if young people are employed, they still can't afford their own flat.

But Poland's emigration trend is also the effect of a larger sociological phenomenon, namely, the Polish transformation from socialism to neoliberal capitalism, which involved the privatization of public companies, lowering taxes, cutting social spending and so on. These outward policy changes were also reflected in the classroom. Suddenly schools started teaching students how to achieve their own individual success, instead of focusing on group welfare.

As a result, the current generation of 20-somethings has only two narratives: If I succeed, it is because of my talent and work. But if I can't find a job, it is because of my weakness and because I am not good enough.

In other European countries today, people in similar situations are organizing themselves to create change. In Poland, where people were raised to assume that they are on their own, they simply leave. In 2013, demographers estimate that the unemployment ratio of young educated Poles will reach 30%. A significant number of them are likely to flee the country.

Earning money abroad often means giving up a career dream to work in blue-color jobs. The list of emigrants' struggles is long: from regional intolerance to housing issues, from suffering homesickness to conflicts integrating with a new society. But despite it all, thousands of people are still on their way. (Last year there were 614,000 Polish citizens with residential status in the U.K., making them the second largest minority group after Indians; in Ireland, Poles are now the largest minority and Polish the second most-used language in the country.)

Demographers are describing this as the fourth great exodus in Polish history. The first two happened after failed attempts to improve people's lives: following Poland's attempted independence from Russia in the 19th century, and after communism was instituted after the Second World War. The next wave of emigration happened when the communists pushed out dissidents. Now, people are being pushed out because they have no other economic options - and because they were taught to pursue their own individual success instead of worrying about societal good.

If someone is looking for the next Polish revolution, s/he may be disappointed.

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