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Belgium's Surprising  Economic Sinkhole

Belgium’s cities are bursting with art, its citizens are top-rank healthy and even the economy is productive, hosting wealthy companies and cool tech startups. And the food? Incroyable! But if you’re fresh out of college and looking to start your career, Belgium may be the last place you’d want to backpack to.

In fact, in numbers that can seem equally fantastical and depressing:

report by the London School of Economics pegs the unemployment rate of youth under the age of 25 in Charleroi, one of Belgium’s major cities, at 44%


Awful as that is — it’s one of the highest unemployment rates in “advanced economies” — the southern city is in better shape than some of the other European cities in the headlines. Athens’ youth unemployment rate is at 60 percent, and Barcelona’s is at 58 percent. The irony is, Belgium overall isn’t faring so poorly — the Flemish north has just 4 to 6 percent unemployment overall, while the Wallon south has 8 to 10 percent. So, why the crappy anomaly? Are we looking at a subset of reprehensibly lazy straight-F students?

Well, serious bad luck on the geography front is one reason. Charleroi’s proximity to France (it’s about a 45-minute drive from the border) means proximity to a nation with terrible unemployment issues of its own. Kids in Charleroi are unwanted in jobs-scarce France and have a harder time commuting to jobs in Germany — it’s a two-hour drive to Cologne, the nearest major city.


You can’t work for someone if you can’t talk to them, and language is another issue for Charleroi’s youth. North of French-speaking Charleroi is a Dutch-speaking region of Belgium. In fact, northern employment agencies are known to avoid southern recruits because of language, says Ekkehard Ernst, the chief macroeconomist of the International Labor Organization. Then there’s a more familiar tale of economic woe: According to Jean-Jacques Dethier, public policy professor at Georgetown University, the industrial city fell on hard times when its iron, steel and chemical production industry vanished in the 1970s.

And let’s not forget the issue of immigration — shoddy educational assimilation of newcomers to the country also affects labor. Immigrants, says a report from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, are “disproportionately affected by longstanding, high structural unemployment” because of everything from school systems that favor the rich to a lack of job-training programs.


Even so, all is not lost. Bert Colijn, a senior economist at The Conference Board, says the region in general has glued together a robust economy for years by supporting startups and courtesy of universities that foster innovation. Maybe the next Tesla will be Belgian.

This post was originally published in OZY. Photo by Smabs Sputzer (Flickr/CC)

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