By José Ramos-Horta and Felix Marquardt*

The refugee crisis in Europe is only the most dramatic illustration of a broader phenomenon of growing and accelerating migratory fluxes. In a world where the seventy-five richest people on earth own as much wealth as the poorest half of humanity, the fact an increasing number of people want a decent piece of the global pie should hardly come as a surprise. Indeed, dissatisfaction with economic and political conditions is at the root of most migratory movements throughout history.  

What is new is that « a shift from states selecting migrants to migrants selecting states » is underway, as Peter Sutherland, the United Nations’ special representative for migration, put it in a recent lecture at the London School of Economics. Indeed, the French Office for the Protection of Refugees and Stateless people recently found itself unable to convince the thousand refugees from Iraq and Syria it aimed to offer asylum to board the buses bound for France which it had sent to Munich. Language, rising xenophobia and high unemployment were cited as the main reasons for this lack of enthusiasm. In the long run, ageing countries that look at immigration as a problem rather than an opportunity are bound to become increasingly fragile. 

In 2012, the Barrez-vous! (« Scram! ») movement argued that France had become an over-centralized gerontocracy and encouraged frustrated French youth to pack their bags and seek growth opportunities elsewhere, both for their own sake and as a wake-up call for France’s political class. In founding the think tank Youthonomics, we ventured to gauge how youth are faring on a much broader scale.

Using fifty-nine different criteria, including youth unemployment, quality and cost of education, the ability of young people to afford housing and save for the future, public deficit, access to technology, political and religious freedom, average age of elected leaders and many more, we created the Youthonomics Global Index, which ranks sixty-four countries according to whether they are creating the conditions that will allow youth to flourish and prosper. Our findings show an astonishing callousness towards younger generations, with many developed countries like France, Japan or Italy performing poorly, and others such as the United States or the United Kingdom showing dismal prospects for youth in the coming years.

In a 2009 study entitled “Generational Economics in a Changing World,” Ronald Lee and Andrew Mason argued that in many areas of the world, for the first time since humans were primarily hunters-gatherers (save in times of famine, epidemic or war), there is no longer a net transfer of wealth from parents to children. Worse still, younger generations are expected to finance the retirements of their elders without any foreseeable prospect of seeing their own retirements financed in turn. Adding insult to injury, in the wake of the subprime mortgage crisis, baby boomers opted to take billions in debt accumulated by hedge funds, pension funds, banks and other private financial institutions and to convert it into public debt, thereby effectively passing its burden on to their grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

Because of the novelty of this situation, its long-term consequences have yet to be fully understood. Last century, the French-Lithuanian philosopher Emmanuel Levinas theorized on the importance of transmitting knowledge and values from one generation to the next. Indeed, he saw transmission as one of the key behavioral differences between man and animal.

But what of the importance of transmitting wealth? What might happen when, for the first time, a generation opts not to transmit anything to the next? What might happen when millennials understand just how badly their parents and grandparents jeopardized their future?

Much has been said about the risk of a clash of civilizations, of cultures, of religions ensuing in the 21st century. What if the greatest threat we faced was actually a clash of generations?

Politicians tend to treat young people offhandedly: youth don’t vote, they are (the new) poor—on average the subprime crisis made them poorer while it made many retirees richer—and, in most developed countries, they represent a shrinking portion of the population. These politicians seem to forget that unprecedented opportunities for international mobility means young people have unprecedented leverage to finally obtain the consideration they deserve. If they aren’t heard out, if their basic needs aren’t met, they will increasingly simply choose to pack their bags and go. We are already seeing children and grandchildren of immigrants in Europe and the U.S. return to their countries of origin to create businesses and seek greater opportunity. 

Countries and governments that introduce policies which improve the prospects of their young and allow them to flourish should be commended on the global stage for doing so, thereby allowing young people elsewhere to call on their own governments to introduce best practices. A global youth work visa would greatly help rebalance things in favor of a generation that is still reeling in the aftermath of the financial crisis by leveling the global playing field and allowing young people throughout the world to make use of the most widely available means to vote to date: their feet.

*José Ramos-Horta is a former President of Timor Leste and a Nobel Peace Prize laureate. He is the cofounder of the think tank Youthonomics.