Down but not out: the plight of Spain's 'lost generation'

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Niccolo and Donkey
Down but not out: the plight of Spain's 'lost generation'

Independent UK

Dale Fuchs

May 31, 2011

Spain's construction crisis squashed Emilio Blanco's third-division football career. The 26-year-old athlete once earned €2,000 a month playing for city-run teams in southern Spain – all sponsored by construction companies. But in 2008, when the country's housing bubble burst, Mr Blanco's livelihood dried up, too. After working for months without pay, he returned to his parents' home and joined the ranks of Spain's 4.9 million unemployed.

It sounds like the start of a sad but common story, but for many young Spaniards such as Mr Blanco, life on the dole is not that bad. He lived at home for a year before moving in with his girlfriend, but it wasn't embarrassing. All his friends with jobs still slept in their childhood bedrooms, too. And his mother washed his clothes and paid for his meals and entertainment. No awkward questions asked.

"It was like living on my own," he said. "I could do whatever I wanted."

More than 45 per cent of young Spaniards are out of work – the worst unemployment rate in the European Union – but until recently, they have not complained out loud about it.

For three years, peace reigned in the Spanish streets. No Greece-style riots here. And so politicians and unions were caught off guard by the youth-led protests that swept Spain this month in the run-up to the recent municipal and regional elections. For the first time Spain's Zara-clad "Lost Generation" grew angry enough to take their grumblings off the couch.

Now, as protesters continue to tend makeshift camps in Madrid's Puerta del Sol despite mounting pressure from local businesses and officials, the question that remains is not why they are angry – the gripe list includes everything from corrupt politicians to bank mortgage policy – but what took them so long to speak up. "They should have got angry much sooner, but they were too comfortable," said Pilar Escario, a psychologist and pollster who co-wrote a book on the habits of young Spaniards.

Spaniards in their twenties have good reason to fume. Universities offer scant practical experience or internships, making it hard to find that first job, they complain. When they do manage to enter the workforce, they face a two-tiered system that offers generous benefits to veteran employees but an endless string of short-term or so-called "trash" contracts to newcomers. This system ensures that they are the first to be fired in tough times – without severance pay.

The construction and service industries were hardest hit in Spain's economic downturn. Spaniards who left secondary school for seemingly stable jobs as hotel clerks or builders of sparkling holiday homes now find themselves scrambling for a new trade. Meanwhile, so many highly trained university graduates are looking for work abroad that economists worry about a brain drain.

"I've never had a contract for more than three months," said Diego Gonzalez, a 24-year-old computer programmer with a master's degree in artificial intelligence, while visiting the protest camp in Madrid's Puerta del Sol. He recently landed a six-month contract paying €1,300 (£1,127) a month. "That's good," he explained. "Two months ago I was earning €500." But Spain's YouTube generation have been able to keep their spirits high despite their bleak job prospects with generous help from mum and dad – and a live-at-home culture that extends beyond the university years.

Indeed, if you're young and out of work in Spain, you might have to trim your cocktail budget, but you don't lose face. Most young Spaniards live with their parents anyway: the average age of emancipation is 31.

It wasn't always that way. During Spain's transition to democracy in the 1980s, an idealistic and politically active generation fled authoritarian homes as soon as they could scrape together enough money to share a tiny flat. But rents – and housing prices – have soared since then. And given Spain's passion for investing in property, even solid earners prefer to sacrifice independence and save money to buy their own place.

Most importantly, parents are more permissive today – so much so that Spaniards can stay in the nest without curtailing their busy nightlife. "The parental attitude is that, as long as they don't do drugs, children can lead a completely independent life within the sphere of the family," said Ms Escario. "So they can live in their own world – with the benefit of an ironing service."

Álvaro Puerta, 21, slumps on a curb in Madrid listening to his iPod while waiting for a job interview as a telephone information line operator. He has been working at temporary jobs – from pizza delivery to warehouse inventories – since he left school at 18, and now he is enrolled in a telemarketing course. "My parents joke that maybe it's time for me to support myself," he says with a boyish grin. "I say, 'In a few more years'."

Mr Puerta doesn't believe the job market is as bad as it sounds – he thinks his peers are just lazy. "A lot of people aren't looking," he says. "If you move, you'll find something."