Between Two Extremes

One rainy October afternoon I sat down with Veronika Pistyur in the state-of-the-art, fun, and colorful headquarters of the Hungarian
start-up Prezi. The smiley and boundlessly cheerful blonde runs Bridge Budapest, an NGO aiming to raise public awareness specifically of start-ups, and generally of the idea that being an entrepreneur pays off both in financial and human terms. The organization was founded jointly by several successful Hungarian IT companies (including Prezi) as a kind of recruitment tool that would help them reach out to younger people and forge links with big players on the market.

Veronika and I discussed whether or not Central Europe was in the grip of an exodus of young people and how difficult it was for companies to attract talent from elsewhere—be it from the east or the west of the continent. One of her organization’s early conclusions is of particular interest: when abroad, young people are very much aware of the political side of things or, as she puts it, the “political PR.” “Once they’ve come here and see the companies from the inside, they often lose interest,” Veronika claimed.

Central Europe Remains Attractive

What makes her point of view unique is that whereas most young people in Central Europe are trying to figure out whether and how they could, should, or indeed might want to leave, the individuals she sees are, by contrast, drawn to this region from other parts of the world because of the opportunities they see here. This is by no means limited to the field of IT, an industry that finds it relatively easy to gain publicity abroad and which, over the past three years, has been able to capitalize on the New Europe 100 ranking, which promotes the most dynamic—especially young—people and companies in the region from Tallinn to Sofia.

Despite all the moaning about the kinds of regimes that have emerged in Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia, and despite some doubts over the quality of democracy elsewhere in post-communist EU member states, Central Europe remains attractive to those unable to pursue their dream career in their home countries, for example because they may get drafted to do long military service in an army that is engaged in a real war. “If I can’t turn my fatherland into a decent country, I will have to make a decent country my fatherland,” a Russian car mechanic told the daily Hospodářské noviny. This was the reasoning he gave when applying for a refugee status in the Czech Republic, as in Russia he faced imprisonment for sharing an article online on the 1939 Molotov–Ribbentrop pact.

Young Eastern Europeans Do Not Seek Only a Better Paid Job Abroad

However, this does not mean that the Central European countries are falling over backwards to stop young people wondering if life might be better elsewhere. I am not referring to social policies or access to cheap accommodation, which have become much less of an issue in the Czech and Slovak Republics due to economic growth and low interest rates. Lack of job opportunities no longer forces young people from the traditionally poorer regions of eastern Slovakia and Poland to seek work abroad. What has gradually dawned on the inhabitants of Central Europe is that it is not a question of finding a job of any kind, but rather that other conditions which the state and public services ought to provide are equally important. For instance, the attitude of civil servants in state agencies. It is no accident that several Polish surveys of the approximately two million economic migrants in Western Europe have shown that they have been driven not solely by a search for better paid jobs but also for decent treatment, something that they found was thin on the ground at home.

Recently the changing political landscape across Europe has caused additional problems. This is particularly striking in the less-mature democracies of Central Europe, where institutions such as courts, schools, or public media have proved too weak and unable to withstand the often quite brutal pressure of populist nationalists. While in Poland the ruling PiS (Rights and Justice) Party won the election by being able to mobilize young voters and make more effective use of social media, their policy of restricting public space and embarking on a Hungarian-style cultural revolution after coming to power has put many young people off any involvement in public affairs, starting businesses, working for the state, launching their own activities, and living in a country run along these lines.

Hungary and Poland Want to Reduce the Emigration by Special Programs

It was this kind of policy that has caused tens of thousands of mainly young people to leave Hungary, in spite of the fact that the Hungarians, like the Czechs, tend to be homebodies, reluctant to move even within their own country in pursuit of a better job. The Hungarian government tried but failed to reduce the high rate of emigration among doctors by promising to substantially raise their low salaries on condition that they committed to stop taking the bribes that are endemic in Hungarian healthcare, and that they pledged not to leave the country for the next ten years.

However, not all young people have university degrees and are fluent in one or several world languages. Those who do not mind the current political situation can benefit from programs such as 500+ in Poland, or the flat rate of 16 percent income tax for private individuals in Hungary. Young Poles are entitled to an extra 500 zlotys a month for their second and every subsequent child, which, the government claims, will help young families and increase domestic demand. Another recent flagship program is the building of cheap flats for the young.

Meanwhile, the Czech and Slovak young people are being enticed by thousands of new jobs in car assembly shops run by foreign corporations. However, nobody has warned them that in a few years’ time they may be made redundant by robots or artificial intelligence. Czech media abound in reports of the car manufacturer Škoda trying to lure young people from across the country to their new factory in Kvasiny in northern Bohemia. Many young people have taken out loans and mortgages (so easily available!), sliding into debt. Not only do they work in an industry vulnerable to fluctuations in global supply and demand, but the latest US trends demonstrate that an increasing dependency on manual labor is detrimental to the economy.

Young Central Europeans Lack a Vision

All this is closely linked to the fact that not a single Central European country boasts a top-ranking education system: these suffer from constant reforms and are starved of funds. Meanwhile the politicians’ approach oscillates between lionizing manual labor and calling for more vocational schools on the one hand, and a communist-style dream of creating an army of scientists on the other. In the case of the Czech Republic, dozens of research centers have been built using European money but many of them stand half-empty.

If there are any young Central Europeans thinking about the future at all, they lack a vision that would spur their local economies and societies to move a step beyond being cheap assembly shops and suppliers to German industry. For example, the Polish deputy prime minister came up with a stimulating program of innovation in an attempt to transform the cheap labor economy into something with higher added value. However, the problem is that this program is being championed by the current government, which shows no signs of being able to convince wider society beyond the relatively narrow confines of its supporters to trust its vision.

As a result, young people in Central Europe find themselves facing two extreme options: either pack it all in and go elsewhere after graduating, or succumb, be co-opted, find a job, and keep away from politics. The overwhelming majority, of course, finds itself somewhere between these two extremes, but somehow this narrows the space for the naturally largest group—those who are ambitious and would like to pursue their dreams while at the same time enjoying decent lives and finding jobs at home.

Martin Ehl

has been working for different Czech print and online media since 1992, from 2006 to 2018 as Chief International Editor and now Chief Analyst at Hospodářské noviny daily. He writes a regular bi-weekly column Middle Europe for the English language internet magazine Transitions Online, for this column he was awarded the „Writing for Central Europe“ prize in Austria in 2012. Co-editor of Visegrad Insight magazine.

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