Youth unemployment in Spain sits at 50%, prompting many to flee and try and make their way in Australia. Kevin Ponniah reports on the youth that were promised prosperity.
On a dark and chilly Melbourne night, José Ortega was taking a quick break in the laneway behind the Robert Burns Hotel, a Spanish pub and restaurant in Fitzroy. A dishwasher — also Spanish — was taking out the restaurant bins. As he wheeled them past, he stopped and turned to José.
He told him he used to be a successful graphic designer, working for a large Spanish firm and living a party lifestyle on a generous salary. “He told me: ‘I used to walk into a bar to meet big clients, and I would be served straight away, you know, ‘get this guy a drink, he’s important.’ And now, I’m taking the bins out. I can’t believe it’,” said Ortega.
With a youth unemployment rate of 50%, this is a common story for the countless young Spaniards around the world who have left home in search of a better life.
Before the global economic turmoil of 2008, Spain was a boomtown. Low interest rates had come in with the switch to the euro. Credit was cheap, swathes of new land became available for development and kids were leaving school at 16 to work in the thriving construction industry. Foreign buyers swarmed, loans were approved and soon every Luis, Miguel and Alberto from Malaga to Pamplona owned a house and car.
Three decades after the fall of Franco, it seemed prosperous and democratic Spain had finally emerged from the darkness of fascism. But like all bubbles, and all assets bought by people that can’t really afford them, the good times had to come to an end.
It’s a story replicated the world over and a narrative that we’ve now all heard before. Greed, speculation and unsustainable growth led to a crash and a burn that may last for decades.
A million properties remain unsold and the Spanish countryside is full of white elephants — half-completed housing developments, a reminder of what once was the “Spanish miracle”, and what is now, along with Greece, the sick man of Europe.
“I’m not going to say we deserve it … but we were pretty laid back,” said Ortega.
The 27-year-old came to Australia in 2009 during the heart of the crisis. Despite having a postgraduate education in human resources, he had no real prospects of a decent job at home.
The Robbie Burns — as locals know it — has been a proverbial welcome mat in Melbourne for newly arrived Spanish and South American migrants for decades. Ortega found a job there, got sponsored by its corporate owner and is now the venue manager. He is one of the lucky ones.
Ortega has a soon-to-be lawyer, economist and nurse, all working behind his bar. They’re Spanish and they came out here to study, though the dream for most is to find a job, get sponsored and be allowed to stay, even if it’s not for the position they trained for. After all, a bar job in Melbourne is now likely to pay more than a job for a young lawyer in Barcelona.
“[The youth] have done nothing wrong. They studied hard and tried to find a job … and because of these other guys that tried to become rich, we now have to find a way out of it,” Ortega said.
In 2011, Spain became a net emigrant country for the first time: more people were trying to leave than were arriving. Many have gone elsewhere in Europe to find work, particularly Germany, where architects, engineers and scientists have flocked. A sizable number have gone further afield, to South America, but also to the USA, Canada, New Zealand and Australia.
Jaime Giménez is a 24-year-old journalism student living in Madrid. He took part in the 15-M or indignados protest movement that erupted in Spain last summer and helped inspired the worldwide Occupy movement. He says the Spanish youth have little prospect of finding any job, let alone a permanent or well-paid one, and thus, they are angry.
The term mileurista used to be a word of pity to describe someone who was paid 1000 euros a month — a poor salary in pre-crisis Spain. In a climate where struggling employers exploit their temporary workers and young professionals are paid a paltry salary, being a mileurista has become an aspiration. According to Ortega, you are now considered “a lucky man” on that kind of wage.
“Back home, few people are working, to be honest, from my generation. Most of them are thinking about moving.”
This economic despair is coupled with the austerity measures of Mariano Rajoy’s conservative government, which Giménez says have raised university fees by 50% at the same time that welfare entitlements for young people and the unemployed are being cut.
“We don’t have hope. Our hope is to live much worse than our parents. So that’s a problem … I don’t know what will happen to us,” said Giménez. Next year, he will move somewhere in South America to find a job. As a Spanish-language journalist, he has little other choice.
“All my friends are planning to leave the country. All my friends are more or less like me. We don’t find a job, we don’t have hope of finding a job and also we like travelling. So we think, OK, we will go, as soon as we can, we will leave,” he said.
The situation raises the terrifying spectre of a “lost generation” for Spain. In the good years, Spanish youth were maligned by their elders as carefree, and happy to live on handouts and their parents, says Alexandra Hadzelek, a lecturer in International Studies at UTS in Sydney who has researched the 15-M movement. They were nicknamed the “ni-ni generation”, which stood for “ni estudian, ni trabajan (they don’t study nor do they work)”.
She says the political mobilisation of millions of Spanish youth last year caught everyone by surprise. “It turned out that the youth were so disaffected with their options for the future that they decided to protest the whole system, the political system, the economic system that produced the current crisis in Spain,” said Hadzelek.This turnaround in their political apathy — stimulated by the change in their future prospects — led to an interesting reclamation of the derisive “ni-ni” term. Hadzelek says that young protesters last year were carrying around posters that said “Ni PSOE, Ni PP” — expressing that they do not feel adequately represented by the existing political order — PP being the incumbent conservative party and PSOE the socialist opposition party.
Giménez says the perception that the Spanish youth are lazy is false, but at the moment many can’t afford to study or find a job, so the “ni-ni” stereotype is perpetuated. “Spain, it’s like other countries. The youth want to find a job and have a future,” he said.
The idea of a “lost generation” is not just an Iberian problem. Both the OECD and the International Labour Organisation have warned that a “crisis” level global youth unemployment rate of 12.7% threatens the prospects of an entire world generation.
According to Hadzelek, despite the mining cushion that currently protects the Australian economy, we must take heed of the lessons that can be learned from Spain.
“[Australia] has a real estate bubble in several cities … we also have a culture of owning rather than renting … where young people are encouraged to buy a property [though they might not be able to afford it] … because we think renting is money thrown away,” she said.
For 28-year-old Ricardo Herraez, Australia’s booming economy has been a saving grace. A trained geological engineer with plenty of work experience, in 2009 he spent six months searching for a job in Spain without being granted a single interview. He arrived in Perth in January 2011 and studied to improve his English while applying for jobs. By June, he was employed as a contractor at SKILLED.
Ricardo now works as a geologist for Rio Tinto and says he earns in three days what he could earn in Spain for a month’s work. Two of his university engineering friends also tried their luck in Perth. One has already left to Canada, and after six months, the other is still looking for a job.
Ricardo says he didn’t meet any other Spanish people in his first year in Australia. But this year he has met a large number of Spaniards who have come to find work. And he believes more will come, despite the distance.
“Back home, few people are working, to be honest, from my generation. Most of them are thinking about moving. But it’s hard to move here, it’s very expensive, you have to invest a lot of money. It’s quite far as well and it’s a big step to take,” he said.
As he speaks to me from Perth, on his off-week from the Pilbara mines, Ricardo’s voice begins to crack. He says the Spanish in Perth are always talking about the situation at home and feel bad they can do nothing to help and that they are so far away.
Still, he hopes to return someday, despite the situation.
“I would like to go back one day, even if the economy is not as well as here. I would like to work in my country and help to develop my country … even if I am losing some money and the salary is going to be lower … it’s my home, so you never know.”