Spain’s jobless generation
In this year of searching for best practices, I felt compelled to learn what I could from a worst case. In May I travelled to Madrid to see for myself.
I don’t speak Spanish or know Spanish culture. And so, as foreign journalists often do, I hire a local fixer — an all-purpose translator and guide. She is Vicky Hayward, author, journalist, flamenco expert, British expat. She has lived and worked in Madrid for 20 years. She is someone who can size up a situation in a blink and a stranger at a glance.
One morning, we are standing outside an unemployment office, approaching young people as they leave. Jose, 26, agrees to speak to us. Embarrassed by their joblessness, most young Spaniards would speak only on a first-name basis. We walk to a quiet side street where there is a bench.
By now, I have found these translated interviews fall into a rhythm. My question, her translation, an answer in Spanish, her English translation. Vicky is adept at this. She captures both the words and tone when she translates. She becomes the vessel of meaning, herself fading into the background.
Jose is tall, thin and well-dressed. He wears aviator sunglasses. He tells me he lost his job at a call centre only six weeks before. The wound is still raw. He is discouraged about finding work.
Jose lives in a flat with two friends, but Madrid is expensive, he tells me. His rent money will run out in a few months. And then what, I ask?
Then he will have to move back home with his parents.
The interview continues on another subject, but out of the corner of my eye I see that Vicky is tearing up. I have missed something.
After another 10 minutes we say goodbye to Jose. As soon as he walks away, I ask, “What just happened?”
Vicky is still struggling to compose herself.
“You realize he was gay, right?”
“I had no I idea.”
“Oh yes. Clear as day. A Spaniard would see that right away. When he said he was sharing a flat with two boyfriends, well . . . When he moves back home with his parents, you know what will happen, don’t you?”
“He’ll have to go back in the closet.”
The economic crisis has turned Spain into a land of a thousand cruelties, many of them hidden.
I meet a man whose girlfriend is a dentist. He tells me her patients can no longer afford routine procedures. They may need a filling or a root canal, but they ask her to just pull the tooth. Her practice is barely breaking even. But if she closes it, she’ll throw her staff out of work.
I meet a bureaucrat from the unemployment office taking a smoke break outside. He says the unemployed regularly faint, perhaps from the stress, perhaps from hunger. The government no longer pays when someone calls an ambulance. The staff must pick up the tab themselves.
At a soup kitchen called Cachito de Cielo (“little piece of heaven”), I meet Mother Superior Sister Almudena. The energetic, elderly nun tells me the ranks of the hungry have swollen during the economic crisis. The nuns in her charge serve 300 people, mostly males and, increasingly, young men.
“They come in from the provinces assuming that they can get work here in the city, and then they discover what it’s like to be without a family. They don’t have a flat to live in. What we really notice is how they deteriorate. It’s the street life that does that. It’s not the hunger because, fortunately, Madrid does have a large number of social centres where we make sure that they don’t go hungry.”
Sister Almudena describes one 30-year-old man she met at the soup kitchen. He had come from rural Spain in search of a job. She noticed that he had been drinking and told him, “It’s really worrying because it suggests that you don’t have any love for yourself.”
He replied, “I’ll be truthful with you, Sister. I realize that, but I have absolutely nobody waiting for me for anything. I have nobody who loves me in any way, nobody who wants me, nobody who is using me for anything, and this is a way in which I cover my solitude.”
Sister Almudena continues: “We give them underwear. We give them razors to shave with and often we given them sleeping bags and blankets so that they at least can sleep without being cold at night.” But what they need the most is “affection, attention, time, and above all people who can guide them.”
As we leave, the people who have been lined up outside waiting for the soup kitchen to open begin to file in. I thank her for talking to a Canadian journalist. Sister Almudena’s parting words to me: “As long as it doesn’t make Spain look bad.”
And that is the thing. The Spanish, fiercely proud of their country, keep up appearances, and that conceals much from the casual observer. Madrid’s new airport terminal is an architectural marvel, tiled with acres of marble. It is vast but nearly empty. On the streets of Madrid, people dress stylishly. But as one young jobless woman told me, you don’t have to spend much here to dress well.
The Spanish authorities try to hide the homeless from view. In a smoke-filled squat in the heart of Madrid, I meet Pablo, a 38-year-old unemployed construction worker. He tells me he used to sleep in the historic Plaza Mayor along with others. But when tourist season arrived, the police turned a fire hose on them in the morning to chase them away. It would not do for foreigners to see them.
Back at the unemployment centre, I meet Miguel, a 23-year-old unemployed electrician. He lost his job when the housing bubble burst. He hasn’t worked for two years. He comes from a middle-class family that helps him out. It is his best friend he worries about. They are the same age. His friend has been without work for five years. His friend’s mother has become seriously ill. They live on 300 euros ($385) a month.
There are commentators who dismiss the high youth unemployment rate as not nearly as bad as it seems. They say the official rate, now at 55.9 per cent, doesn’t count youth working in the underground economy. But these pundits are blind to what that means.
Miguel tells me his friend, desperate for money, found two days’ work setting up a bumper car circuit at a fun fair.
“He gets 10 euros for the whole day” says Miguel, and another 60 euros for taking it down the next day. “It’s dreadful, but it’s something.”
It is said that when a country can’t devalue its currency it is forced to devalue its labour. For two full days of work Miguel’s friend has earned the equivalent of about $90.
Who is to blame? Miguel does not follow politics. But of the government, he volunteers, “They fill up the time on television with football to keep us happy and they treat us like easy little glove puppets they can manipulate. They come out with one law after another and each one is more stupid.”
By the second day of staking out the unemployment centre, Vicky and I have become familiar to the security guard. He smiles at us as he keeps busy oiling the door. I walk inside, and I see a middle-aged couple, both dressed in suits. They sag as they wait in line, humbled. Their expression seems to say, how did we fall so far? And then, in a fleeting gesture, he touches her arm, as if to say, we can get through this.
The reasons for the economic collapse of Spain are complex. It was triggered when the housing bubble burst. It was compounded by too many shaky loans, corruption, cronyism and lavish spending on infrastructure like airports and high-speed trains.
Most independent observers say the high youth unemployment rate is a consequence of an inflexible labour market. It is a two-tier system. The “protected” employees work on permanent contracts. Employers pay a steep penalty by way of severance costs for laying them off. Gayle Allard, an American-born professor of economics in Madrid, tells me that if you were an employer who “wanted to fire somebody who had a permanent contract, it could cost you 45 days per year worked, up to a 42-month maximum.”
Employers, reluctant to hire workers they cannot fire, engage the young in short-term, so-called “garbage” contracts. A young Spaniard might work well into his 30s before finding a stable job. Young employees are here today and gone tomorrow, so employers are loath to invest in their training.
Recent governments have tried to reform the system by reducing severance pay. More flexibility would eventually benefit the young. But ironically, Spanish youth see the reform as an assault on their dream of reaching permanent status. They aspire to be protected. At the same time, they resent the already protected.
In 2011, a youth-led protest movement called los indignados (“the outraged”) held demonstrations and sit-ins. One young protester held a placard that read “Civil Servants, it’s not your corruption I mind, it’s your mediocrity. I have a four-year degree and an MA and will never have a job or a pension.”
The overall unemployment rate in Spain is 25 per cent, the youth unemployment rate more than double. There is a growing divide between young and old workers.
But it is not all intergenerational conflict. Families are making sacrifices together.
Nora, 52, lost her job three years ago. She lives paycheque to paycheque, raising her 21-year-old daughter, Brenda, and two grandchildren from an older daughter. The only work Nora can find is as a domestic. She works for a retired senior civil servant. The family pays her under the table to avoid their legal obligation to fund her benefits.
“It’s always like, ‘Oh Nora, we haven’t got the money, we haven’t got the money.’ Then they buy shoes for 500 euros or pants for 329 euros. Or they can suddenly go on a quick Easter holiday to Majorca.”
It is Nora’s hopes for Brenda that keep her going.
“She studies a lot because she knows that we’re making a lot of sacrifices for her . . . She helps me with the (grand)kids. When they’re sick she will sit up all night with them because she knows that I have to go to work at 4 a.m. She’ll take them to school, and then has a short rest and goes to university.”
Nora never discusses Spain’s crisis or the family’s desperate finances with Brenda. She doesn’t want to distract her from her studies. But Brenda is not fooled. One day she gives her mother her 3,200-euro scholarship money as a rainy-day fund. It breaks Nora’s heart to take it.
When Brenda graduates, she hopes to become a teacher of special- needs children. Nora trusts that her prospects for finding work will be better than most.
She wants Brenda to leave home once she graduates. “I always say to her, ‘I want absolutely nothing else from you,’ ” Nora tells me. “ ‘I’m young, I can keep on working. It’s not a problem.’ She always says, ‘No, I’m going to stay with you. I’m going to help you bring up the little ones,’ and I say, ‘No, no, no. You’ve got to do whatever you want because I really don’t approve of this idea that you bring up children so that when they’re older you make use of them.’ ”
It takes a moment for this to sink in. I grope for the right words.
“In a way, you want to set Brenda free.”
She nods. “Si.”
With research from Vicky Hayward