Spanish youth in crisis
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It is not the job Marta Alba trained to do, or the one she dreamt of as a child. She doesn’t even know the salary on offer. But she knows it is a job, and a job is precious if you are 26 years old, unemployed and live in Spain.
Marta spent five years studying to be a nurse but hospital jobs are few and far between right now. She lost her part-time post at a dental clinic last year and her unemployment benefits will only last so long. She wants a job – any job – that will help her get a little closer to the life she wants to lead, to have a flat of her own and start a family with Pablo, her long-time boyfriend. Her dreams are not wildly ambitious; she just wants a “traditional life” and, if possible, to live in Seville, where she was born and still lives with her parents.
This time, the odds are far from bad. Marta knows that only five candidates were interviewed, and the two jobs as sales representatives for a pharmaceutical company are still on offer. But she worries that most of her rivals are better placed, with previous experience in sales.
“I don’t even know what the conditions are but whatever they are I would take the job. It would sort out my life,” she says. Her interview went well, Marta feels, but maybe not well enough. As she turned to say goodbye to the interviewer, he told her: “Whatever happens, don’t lose your smile.” It seemed like a message of consolation, a few words to weigh again and again over the coming days, until the final answer arrives.
So far, unemployment has indeed done little to repress Marta’s smile. “I am very lucky,” she tells me repeatedly, as she sips a Diet Coke after her interview. She feels lucky because both her parents are still in work and can help her out; lucky because her boyfriend has a job and earns some money working with computers; lucky because she can use her family’s holiday flat on the nearby coast, which is almost like going on holiday.
But she feels lucky above all else because there are so many young people in Spain who are even worse off. Among her class at nursing college, she knows only two out of 100 who have managed to find work in the profession. In her close circle of friends, seven out of 10 are without a job.
Safe, permanent positions with benefits and decent pay – the kind of job that would allow you to buy a house and start a family – seem as rare as snow in a Seville summer. “I don’t know anyone who has a permanent contract,” says Marta. “It’s not even something I think about.”
As we walk through her neighbourhood in Sevilla Oeste, she spots a friend and neighbour in her twenties, out walking her dog in the middle of a weekday morning. “Unemployed,” says Marta. They stop and talk briefly. Seconds later, another young woman cycles by. “She as well,” says Marta.
In Spain, no matter who you are or what you talk about, there is always a before and an after. Before means the good years, when jobs and money were plentiful, when the economy was on a tear and the housing boom was turning bricklayers into sports car owners. It was the decade leading up to 2008, a period that Spaniards refer to, almost biblically, as las vacas gordas, the years of the “fat cows”.
After is what came next: the housing bust, the banking crisis, debt, default and bankruptcies, the cruelty of the house evictions and the shame of the European bailout, the long and bitter recession and, of course, the loss of millions of jobs. Like a tidal wave raking a seaside village, Spain’s economic crisis left nothing and no one undamaged. But some sectors of society were clearly less prepared for the impact: migrants, the poorly educated and – perhaps above all others – Spain’s young.
When the crisis hit, companies up and down the country responded by firing the people they could fire easily – those who were still on temporary contracts. It was a cynical but natural response to Spain’s notorious two-tier labour market, in which workers on permanent contracts enjoy better pay, more benefits and are more difficult to fire. Most of those on temporary contracts, unsurprisingly, were young people fresh out of school or university.
The early years of the crisis cut through their ranks brutally and indiscriminately: in the services sector, between 2007 and 2011, one in four young workers lost their job; in industry, every second worker aged 20-29 was sacked; in construction, it was two out of three. Those who entered the job market during those years faced even tougher odds.
Spain’s youth unemployment rate now stands at 55 per cent, the second-highest in the European Union behind Greece. One in four Spaniards between 18 and 29 is not in education, training or employment, one of the highest rates in the developed world. Close to 1.7m Spaniards under the age of 30 are out of work, with almost 900,000 already classified as long-term unemployed, or without a job for more than a year.
No one, not even the government in Madrid, expects the scourge of mass unemployment to lift any time soon. The Spanish economy may no longer be in recession, and jobless numbers are down from their peak last year. But those who had the bad fortune to leave a Spanish school or university in the past few years – or who are starting their working life – face a bleak future. With jobs still in desperately short supply, many are likely to be afflicted by what economists call the “scarring effect”, a well-known pattern associated with young workers who fail to find work early on: even if they do eventually join the labour market, their earnings and career prospects will never be what they could have been.
Their loss, however, is not just about money and economic advancement. Shut out of the housing market and forced to live with their parents or other relatives, countless young Spaniards are in effect barred from starting their own families. For some, locked in perpetual financial dependence and economic insecurity, that moment may never come.
The share of young Spaniards below the age of 30 living with their parents now stands at close to 50 per cent. Many are living off handouts from their parents, reduced to asking for what is essentially pocket money. Some, like Marta, receive a few hundred euros in unemployment benefits, but only because they previously paid into the social security system. The only other source of income comes from working in bars or other low-paid jobs in the services sector. Either way there is very little money to spread around. The very idea of long-term planning, of slowly graduating towards adulthood and independence, has gone out of the window. “It is as if someone hit the pause button on your life,” a thirtysomething friend in Madrid tells me.
Alessandro Gentile, a sociologist who teaches at the University of Zaragoza, worries how Spain’s youth will fare a decade from now, and what the country that will depend on them will look like. “This crisis is not like the other crises. It is a crisis that will leave scars,” he says. “Leaving home doesn’t just mean being independent. It also means assuming commitment and responsibility. The danger is that you will end up with a passive generation, and one that is not ready to face risks and challenges.”
Manuel de la Rocha, an economist at Fundación Alternativas, a Madrid-based think-tank, voices similar fears: “We will get out of this crisis but there will be a generation that has been left behind. A lot of young people have seen their dreams and aspirations evaporate.”
Spain’s crisis generation has a million faces but it is bound together by a common question: why us? For some, the answer leads to fatalism and despondency. Others, such as Ramón Espinar, respond with eloquent fury to a political system that somehow found €61bn to bail out its decrepit banking system but left its young without shelter in the economic storm. A graduate in political science who is unemployed, Ramón acts as one of the spokespeople for Juventud Sin Futuro (Youth Without Future), one of the most notable social platforms to have emerged since the start of the Spanish crisis.
“We used to have certain promises about our lives and how our lives would pan out,” he says. “They told us that if we study and go to college and learn languages, there would be a future for us, that we would be able to find work and live our life. That promise existed until 2008. But now the promise is broken for me and for a whole generation.
“Before the crisis, people used to have precarious work before moving on to proper jobs. Now precariousness is a reality for people until they reach 30 or 40 or maybe even 60. Precariousness is your life.”
Like tens of thousands of his compatriots, fed up with the lack of opportunity at home, Ramón has started to apply for jobs and grants outside Spain. Numbers are hard to verify but there is little doubt that Spain is losing some of its best-educated and most talented young, those with languages, degrees and the drive to build a life abroad. “Leaving your country is no longer a matter of choice. We have to leave because there is nothing left here for us,” he says.
The alternative, staying behind, means accepting that the things that their parents’ generation took for granted – the traditional life Marta talked about – are no longer available; not the steady job, or the safe pension, or the confidence that comes with drawing your own salary, buying your own house, raising your own family. It means bidding farewell to the notion, deeply ingrained in Spain as it is elsewhere, that every generation will live better than the last. It means developing strategies to make it through the long, empty days and clinging on to the hope that one day one of your countless job applications will find the right address.
Esperanza Roales, 28, has already sent out more than 1,000 CVs and delivered at least 100 by hand. She has a degree in public relations, and has worked stints for the regional employers’ association, an event organiser and even in a local shoe shop. But it is now more than a year since she last had a job, and some days it is hard to keep the hope alive.
“I remember when we were young and still at school we thought that at 25 we would go to work in an office every day, holding a briefcase. That’s what I thought my life would be like,” she says. “And now I live like my mother. I live like a housewife at home. It’s painful but it’s the way it is.”
For Esperanza, the fact that so many share her plight is no longer a consolation: “In the beginning you think: ‘I am not the only one. Everyone is like me.’ But then it gets to the moment when you say to yourself: ‘Why me? What did I do wrong? Why can’t I get a job, not even in a shoe shop?’”
Before we sat down to talk, Esperanza gave me a brief tour of the small, spotless flat she shares with her boyfriend, proudly pointing out the little pieces of furniture she designed and decorated herself. She is working on a website to publicise her design and textiles ideas and advertise the handiwork she creates in her ample spare time. “Many people now take initiatives like this because they are tired of waiting. I know I am not going to earn a lot of money with this but this is about using your time and showing that you are still a useful person.”
It is with much the same thought in mind that Ernesto José Díaz shows up every day at the adult education centre in Seville’s Polígono Sur, one of the poorest and most rundown of the city’s districts. Surrounded by decaying concrete slabs, the centre is something of an oasis: its backyard has been converted into an allotment where locals come to tend neat rows of tomatoes, carrots and lettuce. Inside, it looks just like any other school, only its corridors are filled with subdued adults instead of noisy teenagers.
A heavily built 28-year-old with drooping eyes and thinning hair, Ernesto looks too large and too weary to squeeze behind a school desk after so many years. But he feels he has little choice: Ernesto left school during the boom years, when he was just 16, to work in a factory producing windows. It was good business as long as the boom lasted. He even had a permanent contract but eventually lost his job all the same. “Before the crisis you could find jobs without having A-levels. But now you need them even to register for training courses,” he says. “I sent 30 CVs since I became unemployed but no one has even called me. There are companies – they don’t even bother to pick up your CV.”
His case is emblematic of one of the most pernicious legacies of the Spanish crisis. In the years of the building boom, Spain’s construction sector was in urgent need of low-skilled workers to keep the cranes lifting and the concrete pouring. Tragically, it ended up scouting for labour on Spain’s school yards, where the promise of honest work and easy money proved hugely alluring: hundreds of thousands of teenagers left school during the boom years with just the basic school-leaving certificate, or with no certificate at all. Their departures helped Spain claim a sad record in Europe, as the country with the highest share of so-called early school leavers in the EU.
When boom turned to bust, young workers like Ernesto found themselves out on the street – older, sometimes with families, but still without the skills demanded by Spain’s increasingly picky employers. Of all the groups and subgroups that make up Spain’s army of unemployed, these are the people that policy makers and analysts worry about the most. With every month that passes, their chances of finding work diminish: history shows that even when an economy turns round, unskilled workers with a long record of unemployment struggle more than anyone else to find a job.
About an hour and a half’s drive south of Seville is the ancient port of Cádiz, the ultimate unemployment black spot in Spain. The official jobless rate for the city and surrounding province stands at more than 40 per cent but – as throughout Spain – younger workers have fared even worse.
With such odds in mind, it is little surprise that many students at the local university look to their studies not as a path to a career but as a temporary shelter from Spain’s unforgiving labour market. “The majority of people who study here do so because there are no jobs,” says Daniel Arana, a 21-year-old student at the University of Cádiz, as he waits with a friend for his class to start. Daniel had wanted to become a policeman. Then he realised there would be no jobs in the force and decided to study labour sciences instead. He says he hopes the economy will improve by the time he graduates but worries that it will be hard to get a job even then without personal connections. Where, then, does he see himself in five years’ time? Daniel shrugs. “I’m 90 per cent sure I’ll be standing in the unemployment line.”
The anger and disillusionment that have gripped so many of Spain’s young have spread to their parents, who watch the struggles of their offspring with pity, alarm, frustration and – occasionally – exasperation. The country’s baby-boomer generation knows only too well that it was lucky to enter the crisis with its mortgages paid off and its pensions still funded. Indeed, official data show that the financial hit suffered by Spaniards aged 45-64 was less than half that suffered by young Spaniards below the age of 30. Pensioners, meanwhile, actually grew richer between 2007 and 2011.
Far from enjoying their good fortune, however, countless Spanish parents and grandparents have been forced to provide a roof and financial safety net for their grown-up children. Even those who like to keep them close admit that it is tough watching sons and daughters in their twenties or thirties disappear into the same bedroom they inhabited a couple of decades earlier.
“Young people today don’t have a life. There is no independence,” says Mari Carmen Rosas, 53, whose 23-year-old son José Luis is unemployed. “My son, whenever he wants to go somewhere or wants to do something, he has to ask me. He depends on me to give him money.”
When she was 23, Mari explains, she was already married, had left her parents’ home and was working. She still does, selling sticky cakes and souvenirs in a pastry shop tucked away in the warren of tiny lanes between the town hall and the city’s opulent cathedral. Later that day, José Luis shows up at the shop, as reticent as his mother is outspoken. He says he wants to become a fitness instructor but will need money for the course. For the moment, he spends his time going out with friends and doing sport. But he has no time for politics. “You get nothing out of going to demonstrations,” he says.
As she ponders her son’s future, Mari worries that her generation of parents was too protective of its offspring, too quick to jump in and fulfil the desires and needs of children who are now struggling to stand on their own feet. “My son is a good boy. He is a good friend to his friends,” she tells me. “But I do give him hell. I tell him to get on with things. It sometimes feels like he is a weight that I have to carry around.”
Some of Spain’s crisis-scarred youngsters may indeed be on their way to the margins of society, trapped in a bitter cycle of dependency, lack of confidence and financial precariousness. Others, like Ramón and Esperanza, have plenty of fight left in them. As for Marta, I call her a few weeks after our first meeting to see whether she got the job that was going to sort her life. She sounds her usual cheerful self but the news is not good. The company never even bothered to call her back. A second job interview, for a post as a receptionist in a dental clinic, also ended without reply. Still, Marta is keen to look on the bright side.
“They say things are getting better,” she tells me. There is another opening she has heard of. The interviews are tomorrow.
Tobias Buck is the FT’s Madrid bureau chief.
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