In Spain, the best generation is in danger of becoming the lost generation

Agora Contributor: Arturo Lopo
Photo by Roberto Ortiz via Flickr
Photo by Roberto Ortiz via Flickr

A double degree in communication from Paris and Madrid universities, and a master’s in cultural policy at a prestigious British institution may have been enough for getting a job a decade ago in Spain but not now. Laura, 25 and unemployed for one year, voices her pessimism about her future prospects with resignation and defeatism amidst incessant murmuring about a coming economic recovery.

More than half of the Spanish youngsters that are looking for a job are currently unemployed. This brings Spain’s youth unemployment rate to 55.4 percent, the second highest in the eurozone after only Greece and double the average in the European Union.

The European Commission has set up a 6-billion-euro Youth Unemployment Guarantee fund and the Spanish Prime Minister, Mariano Rajoy, has vowed to fight against this “unacceptable” and “alarming” problem but the opposition and the trade unions have rebuked the lack of measures and urgency in tackling youth unemployment.

Some international analysts have pointed to the around 600,000 young Spaniards who decided to quit studies to sign lucrative contracts in construction during the real estate boom as the fundamental reason for high youth unemployment.

However, other experts have also lamented that the “best-ever educated generation of young Spaniards” have been pushed abroad to seek a better future or, worse, condemned to become a “lost generation.” The point to structural failures in the Spanish labour market that tend to demand experience above all in absorbing new workers.

“Spain should reform the structure and the content of the training courses and vocational programmes so that our youngsters can acquire the kind of skills demanded by companies,” suggest Vicente Castelló and Manuel Sanchis i Marco, professors of Economic at Jaume I University and University of Valencia, respectively.

They complained that the government has launched a “contradictory” strategy, arguing that it applied for European funds while it has been reducing the budget for job creation policies in Spain.

On whether training or education are the solution for jobless youth, Juan J. Dolado, an expert from Carlos III University of Madrid, already cautioned in a study published in 1999, during the preamble to Spain’s economic upswing, that: “An increase in the educational achievements of the labour force does not always solve the unemployment problem unless other labour market rigidities are reduced.”

“Spain can be characterised as a ‘high-skill, bad-job trap’ where higher educated workers end up in semi- or un-skilled entry jobs while crowding out lower educated workers from that type of job,” he remarked.

Stay and struggle or emigrate

Sitting in a bustling bar in Madrid’s bohemian neighbourhood of Malasaña, Laura and her friend Sara talk about their prior intention of becoming independent at the age of 25. But those were better times, when parents used to buy houses for their children. Now they wonder if they will be able to move in their early 30s given the lack of opportunities.

“Companies gladly ask you to enroll in any course, 300 euros or 400 euros each, to work for them and earn some miserable 450 euros a month. Otherwise, they show you to the door,” complained Sara, who finished a degree in advertising almost two years ago.

Having applied unsuccessfully for four jobs (two of them were internships) in which more than 300 people had already sent their resumes in a week, Sara decided to work as an au-pair in a little town near Dublin. After the contract expired, she came back to Madrid and found out the situation was “as depressing as the one [she] left behind a year earlier.”

“Many of my former classmates at University, who have also studied a master’s, are working as volunteers in foundations or are teaching children and earning undeclared money,” says Laura. “Others, those who bet all their savings on moving to the UK or Germany, are working in restaurants, in nightclubs or as freelancers. Some of them have three or four languages, excellent qualifications and previous work experience,” she adds.

Since the beginning of the crisis, youth emigration has soared 41 percent in Spain. In 2012, around 22,000 people under 34 left the country, mostly to other European nations, according to official data. However, 11,000 Spanish youngsters returned that year due to the difficulties with the language and in finding a job at their destination, a trade union report has found.

As a result, the number of people under the age of 26 willing to work fell nearly 4 percent in the first quarter and 8 percent within the last twelve months, amounting to 134,500 youngsters that either gave up searching or left the country, the latest data from Spain’s National Statistics Institute (INE) shows.

“After getting a double degree and an expensive master’s, I do not have any expectations of getting a proper job,” says Laura. “And, currently, the only alternative I have is working nine or ten hours per day as an intern, earning no more than 300 euros per month or even for free, with no hope of being hired in the short- or medium-term. So tell me, how long should I continue like this?”

*Arturo Lopo is a journalist based in Madrid and author of the blog Spanish Sphere. You can follow him on Twitter: @ArturoLopo

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