Democracy and Demography. Not just an alliteration, but one of the crucial connections for the future of Europe. President Ursula von der Leyen said, in times we can now call the pre-COVID era, that we need to have a long-term perspective to make the European Union (EU) sustainable and inclusive. This means combining democracy and the tight schedule of politics with demography to offer a medium- to long-term vision of population trends that is attentive to generations to follow.
But what should a forward-looking Europe that is concerned about social inclusion do? What are the investment priorities? In the pre-COVID era, the social component of Europe was a complement, almost an excuse for the purely economic focus of the EU agenda. Social Europe has focused on fighting poverty, which included supporting young people and their transition from school to work. One of the most successful projects in this direction is the harmonization of training courses in the EU and the promotion of the mobility of undergraduates through the "Bologna Process" and the Erasmus programme. The more recent "Youth Guarantee" has helped to finance job opportunities and training for those under 25.
Europeans, however, are not miraculously born as 18-year-olds. Equal opportunities, social inclusion and skills development start much earlier than the period of coming of age and starting higher education. We now know with certainty that inequalities develop very early in life and are already visible among preschoolers. Inequalities are then amplified during elementary and middle school, and this continues beyond adult life.
Democracy and Demography cannot go together if we do not prioritise our investments in children and in institutions that contribute to forming them: the family and the school (including nurseries and preschools). The risks of exclusion for children and their families has become evident during the COVID-19 crisis. Using robust statistics from Holland, sociologist Thijs Bol (2020) concluded that school shutdowns increased existing inequalities in education, not only among students from different social backgrounds but also between elite schools and the others. This is presumably true for other EU countries as well.
Children and adolescents who have lived through the lockdown will forever remember what Europe will or will not have done for them, during and after this critical period. It's true, minors do not vote, and for this they are often neglected in national or local policies. But this is exactly why the EU can, or rather, must play a fundamental role. Europe must invest in children. Already before the pandemic started, von der Leyen’s Commission had set itself the goal to establish a child guarantee scheme: Education and health for every child against social exclusion. However, in the Franco-Germanic proposal of a Recovery Fund, the long-term perspective is marked by an emphasis on climate change and digitalisation. They are missing obvious references to schools, to children, and to young people.
The priority to the new Europeans – the children – should be fully embraced at this moment, and a significant part of the crisis exit funds should be dedicated to them and to schools. These funds would be, if well-orchestrated, a social investment: Improving the life chances of children would diminish inequalities in the long term, and at the same time it would increase human capital, leading to economic growth in the long run. The interplay between Democracy and Demography should be more than just an alliteration: It is the basis on which we should build a fair and sustainable Europe.
* Bol, Thijs (2020), Inequality in Homeschooling During the Corona Crisis in the Netherlands. First Results from the LISS Panel, SocArXiv. April 30. doi:10.31235/osf.io/hf32q.
An Italian version of this article was published at the newspaper “Repubblica” on the 30th of May 2020: https://rep.repubblica.it/pwa/commento/2020/05/30/news/coronavirus_demografia_e_democrazia_scommettiamo_sui_bambini-258043713/