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Too many boomers in Brussels? EU goes big on its age problem

Too many boomers in Brussels? EU goes big on its age problem

by host

BRUSSELS — Brussels is no city for young officials.

The European Quarter is filled with gray-haired Brussels lifers who know the corridors of powers like the backs of their (wrinkled) hands.

But the European Commission revamped its hiring system to draw in fresh blood. The powerful EU executive unveiled a leaner entrance exam and a more modern work culture in a bid to attract millennials to its ranks. However, many say more drastic reforms are needed to reverse the aging of the EU’s officials.

The average age of full-time Commission staffers — known as administrators in Brussels parlance — spiked over the last decade as the number of new competitions was cut to the bone and young aspiring civil servants were scared off by the concours, the EU’s notoriously lengthy selection procedure. And the few millennials who have made it to the Berlaymont complain that they are treated as second-class staffers. 

“I have older colleagues who earn five or six times more than me to do exactly the same job and exactly the same level of responsibility,” said a disgruntled young Commission official who, like others in this story, was granted anonymity in order to freely discuss internal personnel matters. 

Hopes were high in Brussels that a major entry exam slated for November would have brought fresh faces to the Commission’s ranks. But the EU’s personnel agency postponed the test amid complaints about technical glitches in virtual testing — further undermining the EU’s broken reputation among younger cohorts. 

“It’s a generation that has been growing up for quite some time now with a negative discourse on the EU,” said Magali Gravier, an academic at the Copenhagen Business School who has written extensively on EU staffing. 

“We also have seen in a certain number of surveys, the younger generations are more Euroskeptic than older generations,” she added.

The outcome of this generational clash extends well beyond the Brussels bubble. Eurocrats are the lifeblood of the EU institutions, drafting key reforms on issues such as climate change and digital regulation that overwhelmingly affect younger generations across member countries. It is not right for these choices to fall down only to aging staffers with no skin in the game, say aspiring Eurocrats.

“You obviously have completely different perspectives in your approach to the green and digital transitions if you are 50,” the young Commission official said.

Fortress Berlaymont

The average age of Commission staffers has crept up over the years as young graduates were put off by the EU’s sluggish selection process and as they lost out from its staffing reforms. 

Long waiting times of more than a year for the concours discouraged many aspiring EU officials, who opted instead for a private sector job. 

“The way it [the test] is organized, is not tuned enough to appeal to young people,” a senior Commission official told POLITICO, talking about the old concours

The technical glitches that have riddled the EU’s revamped entry exam also drove away many potential young recruits.

“They told us that this faster model would be easier to sell,” said an EU diplomat of the remote testing. “We have many interesting people who want to come [to Brussels], but then we can’t offer them much,” the diplomat said in reference to the problems.

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To make matters worse, the EU’s top court scrapped an upper age limit of 35 for taking part in the concours on the grounds that it discriminated against older candidates. But in practice, this led to young applicants competing against older and more experienced peers, who ultimately gained an advantage in the EU’s recruitment process. 

“Instead of hiring the young, we’re hiring the old young; that is, newly hired officials with limited career prospects who are demotivated from the start,” said Cristiano Sebastiani, president of Renouveau et Démocratie, a trade union representing EU employees. This exacerbates the age problem within the EU’s biggest institution, he argued.

The Commission also fueled its senescence by increasing the standard retirement age of its employees to 66 and cutting the number of entry-level exams. This pushed up the average age of its permanent staffers from 45 to 50 in the period from 2010 to 2022. 

In this time frame, the proportion of people over 50 working for the Commission swelled while the number of officials in their 20s and 30s dwindled, according to the EU executive’s own figures. 

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This has made life more difficult for younger staffers, who feel ever more isolated in the EU’s corridors of power.

“I would say that 70 to 80 percent of my team are men in their 50s,” said the first young Commission official. 

A second Eurocrat in her 20s said that there are no informal groups of staffers under 30 in her department because “everybody is very old, so I guess I would have to hang out on my own.” 

“The team itself is very nice, but I don’t think they realize how young I am.”

High-ranking EU officials who rose to the top at a young age feel similarly uneasy.

The EU’s former foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini — who arrived to Brussels at 41 — said she “felt too much on the top to be so young.”

“And actually, yes, if I looked around me, I was very young, compared to what was expected from [me],” she said at a panel discussion in Brussels this past October.

EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell talks to his predecessor, Federica Mogherini | John Thys/ AFP via Getty Images

The employment framework itself is part of the problem. The first step into EU employment consists of a time-bound contract — known as an intérimaire in EU jargon — that the employer can easily bring to an end.

This path is “soul-crushing,” noted the first official. “This is incredibly problematic because … you are employed in a precarious position where your contract is extended monthly, or even weekly.”

But even the ones who do stick around tend to be awarded unstable jobs — joining the ranks of the ever-expanding contract agent staff, a transitory role that counts 8,000 officials and is considered the first step to becoming an Eurocrat due to its rolling application period and more straightforward selection process. 

But even that expires after six years — meaning officials would then either have to leave the Commission or start from scratch in another agency if they don’t pass the concours by that time. And it often means the exit door for many young people who’ve lost hope of winning a more permanent post.

“I know people who had to leave the Commission after six years,” said the first official. 

Anti-age formula

But the Commission revamped its hiring process to attract more millennials to its ranks.

The EU executive pledged in 2022 to cut waiting times for its entry exam and allow more teleworking in a bid to make a Brussels career more attractive for young graduates from across the EU.  

“[The concours] will be faster. It will be done in three months, ideally, not a year — which is a lot more acceptable if you leave university,” said the senior Commission official, speaking in a brand-new office tower with shiny glass windows and hi-tech facilities. 

Each department will directly pick its employees, giving it greater leeway to correct geographic imbalances and fill up any empty spots. The new rules also allow each manager to set different rules on working from home, creating competition around attractiveness between units and allowing each applicant to pick their preferred offer. 

Young Eurocrats praised the concept of shifting to digital testing but questioned whether the Commission can fully deliver on its reformist agenda. 

Young Eurocrats praised the shift to digital testing but questioned whether the Commission can fully deliver on its reformist agenda | Leon Neal/Getty Images

The first official said that the general objective amounts to a “step in the right direction.” However, she added, the key question is whether the Commission can manage to cut waiting times for the concours, given how it’s already struggling with delays on existing competitions. 

Meanwhile, critics argue that deeper cultural shifts are needed to change the work environment in Brussels. 

Sebastiani, the EU trade unionist, fears that intransigent managers will thwart the Commission’s attempts to modernize its work culture. 

“Some middle managers have a paramilitary culture, they believe in a culture of control,” he told POLITICO. He noted for example that some EU bosses introduced more flexibility during the COVID-19 pandemic — but reverted immediately once the pandemic was over. 

“The real challenge is to either go forward … or go back to the old bureaucratic routine,” he said.  

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