Generation gap: Ageism hurts Europe’s youth

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Europe has plenty of big divides: north versus south, periphery versus core, east versus west. But one divide transcends all of those and has worsened as a result of the crisis: the divide between the youth and the older generation.

Some 23.8 percent of under-25s, equivalent to 3.5 million people, were unemployed in the euro zone in May, according to the latest data from Eurostat, compared to 12.2 percent for the population as a whole. Greece and Spain have the highest levels of youth unemployment, with more than half of under-25s out of a job.

The poor employment prospects for Europe's youth are worsening divisions between Generation Y - people born after 1980 - and the post-war "baby boomers".

(Read more: Whose job is it to tackle youth unemployment?)

"The young are suffering particularly hard on the unemployment front, which is likely particularly galling to them as they see the older generations as being responsible for the economic/unemployment problems," Howard Archer, an economist at IHS Global Insight, told CNBC on Tuesday.

Politicians are growing concerned. German Chancellor Angela Merkel called youth unemployment "the most pressing European problem".

But the gulf between the youth and baby boomers goes beyond just jobs, there is tension over housing, pensions and education policy as well.

(Read more: Youth unemployment could 'scar' an entire generation: ILO)

"There's a growing resentment that the baby boomers soaked up the good times and won't share their good fortune," Francis Beckett, author of "What Did the 'Baby Boomers' Ever Do For Us?" told CNBC.

Younger people are significantly more likely to experience aged-based prejudice than old people, according to a study conducted in 30 European countries.

The European Social Survey (ESS) found that ageism - the unwarranted assumptions made about people because of their age - is the most pervasive forms of prejudice across Europe. People under 25 are the worst affected, it said, with the problem particularly prevalent in the U.K., Ireland and the Nordic countries.

Rory Fitzgerald, director of the European Social Survey at the City University in London, which compiles the research, said that while baby boomers might be lucky to talk about lucrative pensions that are linked to their final salary, younger people don't share that same privilege.

"We found young people actually felt they were discriminated against their age more than older people," Fitzgerald told CNBC Tuesday.

(Read more: Children's Life Chances in Poverty-Stricken Europe Decrease)

The data collected in 2008/09 shows that the proportion of people aged 70 and above who report experiencing age-based prejudice ranges from 15 percent in Sweden to 57 percent in the Czech Republic, while for people under 25 this figure ranges from 18 percent in Portugal to 77 percent in Finland.

Beckett told CNBC that his children envied his senior citizen Travelcard, which gives him free travel on public transportation all over London, while they increasingly have to pay more for travel themselves. But it's property, he said, that is the real source of tensions.

"They know how easy it was to buy property when we were young, and how some members of the baby boomer generation made themselves effortlessly rich by continual property purchases in a fast-rising property market, and are now sitting on all the property that their children would like to buy and live in, but cannot afford," he said.

"I feel guilt: about my children, and about my parents. The generation above and the generation below paid for the soft life for 'baby boomers'."

But Edward Howker, the co-author of "Jilted Generation: How Britain Has Bankrupted Its Youth" doesn't agree. It's not a case of one age group being pitched against another, he told CNBC. It's more a mass policy failure by governments that have let down the younger generation which he said needs be addressed.

"When youths in these struggling euro zone countries gather round town squares to riot, they are not rioting against their elders but rioting against the system and policy mistakes that have made their future less secure," he said.

"Baby boomers", on the other hand, may have increased wealth, but this wealth will eventually trickle down to the next generation, in a way that baby boomers never experienced themselves, Howker said.

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