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The Broken Hopes of a Spanish Generation

14 minute read
Lisa Abend / Vigo

Not long ago, Lorena Dominguez looked forward to the future. She had a well-paid job at the Citroën automobile factory in Vigo, the town in northern Spain where she had grown up. She had recently moved in with her boyfriend Oscar, and had put her own apartment on the market. The two spent their weekends hanging out with friends in Vigo’s lively waterfront cafés and were planning to travel this summer. It wasn’t a bad life for the 23-year-old daughter of a longshoreman and a housewife.

Then came la crisis. Domínguez first began to feel the effects of the recession when she was unable to sell her apartment, despite lowering the price several times. That failure cramped her plans for the future a bit — last year she and Oscar decided to spend their summer vacation closer to home — but it wasn’t until December that she felt its full fury. Right before Christmas, Citroën let go 3,000 workers — 90% of them below the age of 35 — and Domínguez was one of them. Since then, she’s had to rely on her parents to make her mortgage. “I always thought I would do better than my parents,” she says. “But now that seems like an impossible dream.”

(See pictures of Spanish truckers on strike.)

Call it Generation Disappointment. As the recession tightens across Europe, the young are hurting disproportionately. Nowhere is that more obvious than in Spain where unemployment in the general population runs to more than 17% and one in three people younger than 25 is out of work. Many have no frame of reference for what is happening; they grew up with two decades of strong economic growth and the optimistic assumption that they would be better off than their parents, just as their parents did better than the generation before them. The realization that Nikes, Wiis and cell phones are not their birthright comes as a hard lesson. With credit tight, young Spaniards are finding it virtually impossible to buy their own homes. Many have been forced to move back in with their parents or put off plans to move out. “A whole generation is having its ambitions thwarted,” says Daniel Lostao, president of the Youth Council of Spain.

Until recently, Spain was one of the European Union’s great success stories. In 1992, Spain’s per capita GDP was 70% of the E.U. average; by 2006 it was 90% of that of the 15 pre-2004 members. Growth helped cut unemployment, which had hovered near 20% for decades, to 8.3% in 2007, and drew hundreds of thousands of immigrants to a country that had, in the ’50s and ’60s, sent its own desperate citizens abroad.

(Read: “Bitter Harvest in Spain’s Olive Country.”)

As the hardships of the Franco dictatorship receded, new generations born under democracy embraced rising expectations, both material (by 2007, 81% of families owned their own home and 21% had a second one) and professional. “That was the major social change of the transition,” says Cristina Bermejo, director of youth issues for the Workers’ Commission, Spain’s largest union. “Illiteracy had been a big problem in Spain since the civil war. But in the ’70s and ’80s, there was a reaction against it. Suddenly everyone, even factory workers, expected their kids to go to university and do better than they had.”

To get an idea of the changes that occurred in Spain, it’s worth taking a look at Vigo, a city of 300,000 in the northwestern region of Galicia. Unlike other Spanish cities with their booming tourism and service industries, Vigo is proudly working class. But even here, on the docks and in the factories, the past few decades have brought unprecedented prosperity.

The Citroën factory opened in Vigo in 1958; by 2007, it was manufacturing 547,000 cars a year and had become the company’s highest-producing plant in Europe. It was also the largest company in the region of Galicia, directly employing more than 10,000 locals. Those steady, well-paid jobs helped transform what was once a rough-and-tumble port into a pleasant seaside city, complete with manicured boulevards, a contemporary-art museum and plenty of Zara outlets. By 1990, there were enough ambitious young people in Vigo to support a university.

The influx of kids — and of their parents’ disposable incomes — helped foster new businesses. In 2005, Ramón González opened what would be the third tattoo parlor on the then bustling Pi y Maragall Avenue. Business boomed. Students, “Citroën workers and the kids of Citroën workers kept me busy,” he says.

Spending Cuts
Then came Spain’s property crash and the financial turmoil in the U.S., which tipped the world into recession. On a recent Friday, González’s studio was empty. There is at least one boarded-up storefront on every block of the street where it is located. Cafés, children’s boutiques, legal offices, furniture stores, language schools — the recession has closed them all. “I’m getting by on piercings,” says González with a shrug. “They’re a lot cheaper, so the kids can still get enough money to pay for them. But who knows how long that will last.”

Patricia Portela is one of those people who, not too long ago, might have splashed out on a discreet tattoo. On a warm March afternoon, the 20-year-old met some friends in Vigo’s waterfront promenade. Portela works in a local clothing store and hopes to be a designer some day; her three friends are in college. Their shiny hair and fashionable clothes betray their prosperous, middle-class background, but even these women are feeling the pinch. Asked how the financial crisis is affecting them, they enumerate a long list: the clothing they can no longer buy, the vacations they can no longer take. “Before, you would just go shopping on a whim,” says Portela. “Now my parents don’t let me.”

See pictures of the global financial crisis.

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Like Ireland, which for more than a decade boasted growth rates three times the E.U. average, Spain’s once booming economy has been hit especially hard by the downturn. Spain’s GDP is expected to shrink 1.6% in 2009, and the first place that young people feel the contraction is in their purchasing power. “Kids today have grown up with consumerist expectations and feel frustrated when they can’t maintain them,” says Alberto Saco, sociologist at the University of Vigo. “But more frustrating is what is happening to their expectations about work and housing.”

(Read: “Ireland’s Economy: Celtic Crunch Time.”)

Portela and her friends are certainly aware they have more to worry about than shopping sprees. Paula Rodríguez, 20, is studying journalism. “But there aren’t any jobs in that, so I’ll probably just stay in school longer and get another degree,” she says. The prospect of owning a home — and the mortgage that comes with it — makes all four girls laugh, so far-fetched does it seem. “How am I going to get a mortgage if I can’t even get a job?” scoffs Rodríguez.

The lack of decently paid jobs for young Europeans is one of the continent’s great failings, a phenomenon so broad that in country after country people have coined shorthand terms to describe a generation frustrated by its plight. In France that term is jeunes diplômés. In Greece, Generation 600. And in Spain its members are called mileuristas. “The mileurista,” explains Daniel Lostao, president of the Youth Council of Spain, “is someone who earns €1,000 ($1,300) a month, despite all their education and training. They’ve got master’s degrees and speak multiple languages, but they can only get a low-end job, where they’re lucky to earn €1,000 a month. It makes you wonder: what’s the point of going to university if you’re going to end up a cashier?”

(See pictures of a Spanish village.)

Thwarted ambition is not the only problem. One of the dirty little secrets of Spain’s boom years was the number of people Spanish firms employed on casual contracts. In an effort to make its labor market more flexible, the country has the highest rate of temporary jobs in the European Union: one in three. The great majority of those “trash contracts,” as they’re called by locals, go to the young, making them the easiest (read: least expensive) workers to fire. None of this is new. Young people have complained of being mileuristas since Europe adopted the common currency and the general precariousness of many jobs has long forced a kind of prolonged adolescence, with adult children living in their parents’ homes well beyond graduation. But the recession is scaling back even the limited opportunities casual positions offer. Not only are there fewer jobs available — Spain lost 620,000 positions in 2008; 124,000 joined the ranks of the unemployed in March alone — but those that remain are earning even less. “People here wish they were mileuristas,” says Iolanda Velasco, a Vigo city councilwoman. “They’re 800-euroists.” Velasco, who oversees the city’s youth programs notes another change. “The cutoff age for our workshops and training sessions was 30. But because the age [people leave home] keeps rising, we just changed it to 35.”

Little wonder that people like Jenifer Fernández are so depressed. When the 
 23-year-old started her university studies in sociology at the University of A Coruña in 2005, her parents could afford to rent her a dormitory room and, later, an off-campus apartment. But when their budget became tighter last year, she had to move back home. Now she commutes to school, a 90-minute train ride away. Fernández doesn’t see any end in sight to her dependency. “My father worked as a machinery operator, my mother is a housewife. They put me through school so that I’d have a better life than they did,” she says. “It’s really hard for them to understand why I can’t find a job.” She’s given up her goal, at least temporarily, of becoming a sociologist and is instead considering joining one of Spain’s last refuges of job security: the paramilitary Guardia Civil, which functions as a kind of national police force.

See pictures of General Motors factory-scapes.

See pictures of the global financial crisis.

Blue-Collar Blues
The crisis has hurt 20-somethings without college degrees even more. In Vigo’s unemployment office, people of all ages and backgrounds come by to get the stamp that allows them to receive unemployment payments, but it’s hard not to miss the heavy predominance of blue-collar workers under 30. Manuel Bao, 24, has worked as an electrician since he was 18 — his contracts were never permanent but there was enough work to keep him busy. Now that the construction industry has gone bust, he’s out of work — and about to run out of unemployment benefits as well. “Right now, I’m dependent on my mother,” he says ruefully. In the hopes of finding a stable job, Bao is preparing to take the exam that would allow him to become a security guard. ” If that doesn’t work,” he says, “I guess I’ll just go from job to job and try to survive.”

But it’s not only unemployment that disillusions Spain’s young. Ivan, who does not want his last name used, actually has a job: he starts his days at 4 a.m. on Vigo’s docks, hauling fish for his parents’ wholesale business. But these days, he and his family have a hard time getting to the end of the month. Which is why, he says, he now trafficks drugs. That’s not so unusual in a port known as a major point of entry for cocaine, but there is something about the nonchalance with which Ivan confesses it that underscores his despair. Asked if he expects to surpass his parents’ standard of living, he laughs bitterly. “I don’t have expectations of surpassing them. I don’t have expectations of anything.”

(See pictures of Spanish truckers on strike.)

Like 53% of all Spaniards between the ages of 18 and 35, Ivan still lives with his parents. “We all have the expectation that our children will become independent and leave home,” says sociologist Saco. “When they don’t it’s frustrating for the parents, too.” Having a 30-year-old around the house — especially if that 30-year-old needs help with her phone bills — generates its own forms of conflict and has fueled domestic violence.

In Vigo, the local government has attempted to make it easier for young people to start lives of their own by building subsidized housing. Located at the side of the freeway, the Navía development consists of brightly colored high-rises, many of them still under construction. There are a few shops and cafés, and lots of families with young children to fill the new playground. One restaurant, sensitive to financial constrictions, offers meals — three courses, plus wine and coffee — for €5 ($6.50).

Belén Ortíz, a hairstylist, lives with her husband Jesús in one of the new apartments. Jesús has a steady job as a civil servant, and the couple’s mortgage, thanks to the government’s help, is just €400 ($520) a month. But her sense of dread is palpable. “We used to have 10 clients a day,” she says of the salon where she works. “Now I can go from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. without a single customer. Do you know what it’s like to sit around all day, just hoping that someone will walk through the door?”

Young, Educated, Frustrated
Some young Europeans are growing tired of waiting. Last year, a police shooting of a 15-year-old boy in Athens triggered weeks of riots by Greek youth. Some commentators attributed the eruption to anarchist groups, but, as elsewhere in Europe, structural flaws are just as much to blame. “In Greece, all flexibility in the labor market comes from young workers and the evolution of their wages is completely flat, while it continues to rise for people in their 40s or 50s,” explains Philippe Askenazy, researcher at the Paris School of Economics. “The Greek problem stemmed from the fact that prospects for young people are more negative than for their parents.”

(See pictures of the riots in Greece.”)

While youth unemployment across the E.U. is significantly higher (17% for those 25 and under) than in the general population (7.6%), some countries are more vulnerable than others. German companies tend to hire workers at an early age; French and Spanish firms prefer temporary contracts to get around sometimes draconian labor laws. “The social crisis is more pronounced [in France and Spain] because their citizens believe policy should create more employment. But in a downturn, it leads to a rapid increase in just the opposite,” says Askenazy.

That, in turn, fuels the profound sense of frustration and hopelessness shared by millions of young Europeans as the recession tightens. In some ways, the good years have made things worse. Lorena Domínguez, the unemployed automobile worker in Vigo, never had a permanent contract at Citroën, but there were years when she was earning good money, and she expected that the firm would offer her a permanent contract one day. The future seemed full of promise and rising living standards. Now she spends her time looking for work waiting tables, selling insurance, cleaning offices. “My generation was born into an era of abundance,” she says. “I guess our expectations were just too high.”

See pictures of the global financial crisis.

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