Meet the youth of the Balkans, version 2014. Born in post-Yugoslav era, they’re old enough to remember years everyone wants to forget, yet too young to have memories of the times everyone wants to remember. Facing challenges unlike their peers anywhere else in Europe, they’re a generation shaped by massive social instabilities, limited employment opportunities, and debt they had no part in creating. Yet even for a generation whose destiny seems predefined by a dark history, the spirit of youth remains synonymous with hopes, dreams and the desire for change. Post-conflict zone or not, it is in DNA of these young people to never simply settle with the game plan of past generations.
In this series, I will set out to answer a question that can only be answered by meeting the youth of the former Yugoslavia: Who is the Balkan Class of 2014?
Meet Mima, one of the many brains about to be drained from Serbia
The Class of 2014 has drive. In fact, they are so driven, they refuse to spend their youth waiting for change to come to the Balkans. Instead, they’re look for happiness under foreign skies.
In the quest for capturing the spirit of the Balkan Class of 2014, one could turn to the numbers and statistics that seem to define them and their future opportunities. As entrance into the labour market is one of the 21st century’s most important rites of passage, employment statistics can perhaps best illustrate what the future has in store for the young generation. According to the Serbian Statistical Office, the unemployment rate for the youth (15-24 yrs) was 50.9 percent in 2012, while the total unemployment rate (15-64 yrs) was 26.1 percent. This undoubtedly gives Serbian youth a run for their job-hunting money, but the future actually looks less clouded for young Serbs than it does for some of their European peers. For instance, according to the World Bank, some 54 percent of young Spaniards find themselves with no plans.
While some young Serbs certainly choose to drown their sorrows in escapism (frequently comprised of rakija and turbofolk), an even greater number seem determined to follow their dreams to greener pastures, leaving the arid plains of the Serbian labour market behind. As a result, the number that best captures the attitude of the Serbian youth is the number 141. This is the number the Republic of Serbia was ranked out of 144 countries on the World Economic Forum’s 2013 Global Competitiveness Index in the one category that might make even the most pro-visa liberalization politician reconsider their attitudes: Brain drain. And while low-wage jobs in the higher income countries, particularly in Western Europe, still attract waves of migration, the young Serbs who look for luck abroad tend to carry with them both bags of earthly possessions and diplomas of higher education.
Despite a lack of official statistics from official Serbian sources, a media report published by the Turkish news agency, Anadolu, in August 2013, estimates that around 300,000 highly educated young people have left Serbia in the past 25 years, and around 12,000 people between the age of 25 and 36 continue to do so every year. More than two decades after the wars of the 1990s sparked massive migration from the Western Balkans, a new generation continues to set sail for distant destinations.
I met up with Miroslava “Mima” Nikolic, a first year student of Scandinavian Languages at the department of Philology at Belgrade University, with the aim of hearing about the migration impulse of young Serbs straight from the source. Like any young person, she has great ambitions, and like many of her peers from the Balkan Class of 2014, she refuses to allow her future to be defined by her country’s clouded past, or the depressing employment statistics of today. Despite having only spent two semesters in college, she already has her mind set on the world outside of Serbia.
Mima and I meet outside her apartment in the lower Dorcol area of Belgrade on a late Thursday afternoon. It is the day before her 20th birthday, and we have agreed to take a stroll along the Sava. Though she has a mere seven hours left before she officially leaves her teenage year behind, Mima has already experienced bigger worries than bad skin and choosing the right profile picture for Facebook. Before entering language studies at Belgrade University in the fall of 2013, she was well aware of the future prospects upon graduation. In her final year of high school at the Karlovačka Gimnazija outside Novi Sad, Mima remembers how representatives from the employment office visited her class.
“They told us about the job opportunities each faculty would bring. Basically, they told us that there is nothing for students of the faculty of humanities,” she explains, stressing the word “nothing”.
“They told us that studying IT technologies, math and physics were the only ways to get a job”.
Since Mima went to a high school with a special emphasis on grammar and languages, the message, which apparently aimed to inspire students, came across as more apocalyptic than motivational.
“We were all sort of depressed after that. No matter what we were to choose, we seemed to have limited options,” she continues.
We sit down on a bench overlooking the entrance to the Belgrade Harbor. Now and then the occasional cruiser passes by, filled to the brim with German tourists munching on assorted buffets. As we sit and enjoy the last rays of sunshine of the day, I ask Mima if the presentation/doomsdays pep talk sparked discussions among her peers about going abroad.
“A lot of us had talked about going abroad before, but after that lecture, it seemed like a sure thing,” she says.
In fact, Mima had already made several attempts to leave Serbia while still in high school. Along with her entire class, she applied to become a foreign exchange student in the United States, though only one student was selected. Her initial choice of university was not the University of Belgrade, but the University of Helsinki, where she hoped to enroll in an international arts program. Unfortunately, that exact year, the rules of admission changed, making knowledge of either Swedish or Finnish a requirement for all future students and thereby excluding most foreign students.
One reaction to this kind of setback would be to simply study art history at a domestic, Serbian university. However, in Mima’s mind, and presumably that of many other young Serbs, pragmatism and certain realities must accompany personal interests and dreams. Therefore, despite having had hands-on experience in the art world as a former volunteer at the Museum of Vojvodina, her knowledge about the lack of employment opportunities in the field of culture overrode her love of the French impressionists. Instead, she chose to study Scandinavian languages, hoping that niche linguistic ability would offer her chances for either domestic or international employment, and enable her to enroll in art programs in the Nordic countries.
Mima says that the reason her generation is so aware of the consequences of their decisions from an early age is that they are constantly being reminded of the harsh economic realities of Serbian society, both in words and actions.
“Our professors have openly told us that we will be playing chess at the unemployment office,” Mima says.
“We see how the postgraduates and PhD students at our faculty have a hard time finding decent jobs, which is not exactly encouraging.”
With these words, Mima identifies one of the root causes of why the educated youth is on the run from the Balkans: It is one thing to get a job. However, a well-paid job, where the salary actually matches young Serbs’ academic efforts, is an entirely different thing.
A typical job offer for language students is working at a call center, usually owned by a multinational companies. In these places, students and postgraduates who have mastered a foreign language to the extent that they are able to answer questions about broken stereos and warrantees on dishwashers are sometimes able to find employment. In fact, as Mima explains, such companies regularly visit the Faculty of Philology in central Belgrade, hoping to recruit students for employment. By Serbian standards, the payment is fairly decent. However, for the more ambitious members of the Class of 2014, having a job far below their level of qualification just won’t cut it.
”We did not study for years to work in call centers,” Mima says. Like young people everywhere, the Class of 2014 is not looking to simply enter the labor market. They are looking for employment that will give them the opportunity to fulfill their ambitions and allow them to actively use their hard-earned skills.
Working low-skilled jobs despite having attained a high level of education is just one side of the brain drain coin. The Class of 2014 also seems to be painfully aware of the fact that similarly low-skilled jobs are paid much better abroad. Due to massive migration waves from the Western Balkans, both before, during and after the wars of the 1990s, many in the Class of 2014 have come in contact with life abroad through either relatives or returnees.
“Some of the Serbs, who came back after washing toilets in Western Europe, have huge houses here, and they put, like, lions by their gates,” she says laughing.
Nevertheless, Mima stresses that it’s not the statues of lions that makes her consider a life abroad, as she would never give up her academic ambitions, big paycheck or not. Money has never been her main motivation, and her dreams for the future do not include a lavish lifestyle.
“I would really like to not live with my parents when I’m an adult,” she explains.
Mima hasn’t just seen evidence of the economic opportunities outside of Serbia by strolling around the outskirts of Novi Sad, she’s also seen it through her own family. An older relative in Australia often gives Mima’s family money, and tells stories about the paradise of life Down Under.
“He talks about how much better the system is there,” Mima says, explaining that the brain drain of her generation is not just a consequence of the fact that well-paid jobs for educated youth do not grow on Serbian pine trees. A deeply rooted distrust in the Serbian authorities is also to blame.
“There is generally very little faith in the system. They should be here for us, but instead, they pass laws they don’t even respect themselves,” she explains.
In addition, some people of importance tend to interpret Serbian laws in their own creative manner.
Mima’s diminished faith in the system was entrenched in childhood. In 2010, her mom lost her job as an agricultural analyst in a round of privatizations of the agricultural sector in Novi Sad.
“After being privatized by the wrong people, a lot of the companies just fell apart, and they started firing people. To this day, the company owes my mom for two months of pay, and she will probably never see that money, because it just doesn’t exist,” she says.
What may sound like the ultimate Balkan cliché is nevertheless Mima’s impression of the Serbian system. And it’s definitely not patriotic feelings that will keep her from becoming a part of the migration statistics. Her social network, on the other hand, does make her think twice about leaving Serbian soil.
“I feel more tied to my family and friends than to my country,” Mima says.
Her family is generally supportive of her pursuing happiness abroad, though her parents never considered moving when they were young. “They did not have the same ambitions I do, because they had comfy lives here. They lived in Yugoslavia, so they did not feel a need to leave.”
As Mima talks about what is now remembered as the good old days of Tito, I dare to ask her whether the Class of 2014 has angry feelings towards the older generation. This would not be strange, since many of the issues the youth must deal with today were created or exacerbated by the destruction of Yugoslavia: the unstable financial situation, the social tensions, and the general distrust in the political system.
“I definitely think that my generation has feelings of anger and frustration,” Mima says, adding that reckless, juvenile violence is symptomatic of the frustration of people her age.
“I guess there was I time when I was angry. I had some anger in relation to the situation with my mom’s job. But then I realized that I was not getting anywhere with this, and that I will just be unhappy if I stay angry.”
One can imagine that the anger of Mima’s generation isn’t exactly eased by the constant telling of stories from the glory days of Yugoslavia, a time when jobs were plenty and living standards were high. The hymn of “Yugonostalgia”, which has practically been the lullaby sung to the Class of 2014, can leave the impression that Serbia’s best times are in the past. Mima is aware of this, but tries to keep her focus on moving forward.
“I have no idea what the best times were like. I have heard the stories, but I wasn’t there. I know that I might have been born in the worst times of Serbia, but that should not define neither my future, nor me. It is a part of where I am from, but it’s not what I am.”
Instead of holding a grudge against the older generation, Mima tries to channel her frustration into motivation:
“Even though there is no guarantee of a decent job, it doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t try. You just have to be really creative about finding jobs, be really stubborn about it, and keep pushing.”
As we walk back towards her apartment, the sun is about to set on Mima’s last day as a teenager. Discussing minimum wage, bad privatizations, and the sacrifice of personal interests, it is easy to forget that she is just now entering her twenties. Yet even for a potential educated youth-on-the-run, the idealism of the young conquers the skepticism of the system.
“I would like to return to Serbia at some point,” Mima says. “I will try to develop myself, educate myself and get experiences from abroad — and then I would like to come back and contribute to changing the system. It might not help, but at least I’ll feel like I tried.”
The class of 2014 has drive. Judging by the numbers, young Serbs like Mima seem to have a dancing-on-their-own approach to life and opportunities in the Balkans, and until Serbia gets ready to tango, the brain drain will continue to flow.