Young and restless in Spain as jobless rate soars

May 27, 2011 - 5:28 AM
Spain Protest

Demonstrators sit in an abandoned couch after spending the night at Sol square during a protest in Madrid, Friday May 27, 2011. Thousands of Spaniards have mounted a protest camp in the heart of the Spanish capital to express anger at political parties and the country's handling of the economic crisis. (AP Photo/Pedro Acosta)

MADRID (AP) — The first thing Silvia Huelves was told when she started studying architecture was that she should take up Chinese or Japanese — she was never going to build anything in Spain any time soon.

It wasn't criticism of her skills but a reflection on the state of the country, where the jobless rate among 16-24-year-olds is a staggering 45 percent and a construction sector slump caused nearly two years of recession.

Now the young people are protesting, setting up camps in the hearts of Spain's main cities to bring attention to their plight. While they're angry about lots of things, bleak job prospects and having to live with Mom and Dad well into adulthood are top of the list.

Huelves, a cheerful 19-year-old with a big smile, said her professors make no secret of the dire state of things.

"You go in and the first thing they say is 'forget about it, you are never going to build buildings,'" said Huelves, a cheerful 19-year-old with a big smile, about her architecture studies.

Construction is no doubt the hardest hit sector in Spain's battered economy as it tries to recover from a burst real estate bubble. But in almost any line of work Spain's young people are faced with a dark outlook. The jobless rate in the under-25 age bracket makes the national unemployment rate of 21.3 percent seem mild by comparison. Widen the bracket to the age of 29 and the rate is still a stunning 35 percent.

To protest against the situation, young people have been coordinating over the past two weeks via social media like Twitter and Facebook to set up huge camps in the capital and other cities. The camp in Madrid features stands with donated apples and bananas, juice and baguette sandwiches, as well as makeshift clinics and libraries with grungy sofas.

"More than anything, this is about being fed up. We are absolutely fed up," said Maria Martinez, 32, sitting in a lounge chair under blue sheeting protecting the Madrid camp from a blazing midday sun.

Martinez considers herself relatively lucky because she has been jobless for only about two months and has worked since age 17, mainly in factories and offices. But it was always for low wages, sometimes with no benefits and always getting part of her pay under the table.

Martinez rattled off other gripes — conservative politicians who watched Spain's real estate market heat up and took credit as GDP rose nicely, banks that helped and profited by providing streams of easy credit, and the current Socialist government that presided over the bubble's loud pop in 2008, with its disastrous impact on the country.

"I am the first one to acknowledge we have reacted late and we have been asleep for a long time," Martinez said.

Another jobless protester, Pablo Luna, 27, has a degree in history, just finished a Masters in journalism and says he has zero prospects for work. He said it is virtually unheard of for people to complete their studies and go right into work in their field.

"Of the people I know, no one has done it," said Luna, an articulate man with a thick, dark, wild pony tail and the rich voice of a radio announcer. "I should be out looking for a job. But my heart tells me I should be here now."

Much of the problem lies with rigid rules governing Spain's labor market, in particular the high cost of laying off established, older and less productive workers under legislation that goes back 30 years, said Gayle Allard, a labor market expert at IE Business School in Madrid.

With employers wary of giving new hires full-blown, open-ended contracts, younger workers often end up with temporary ones, sometimes lasting just a few months. In the good days, companies would roll those contracts over time and time again, but since recession hit many have just let them run out.

This makes the Spanish jobless rate highly vulnerable to swings in the economy, as nearly a third of all workers have temporary contracts. The jobless rate has more than doubled in about three years, with young people who often earn just euro1,000 ($1,400) a month taking a particularly hard hit.

In the 27 countries of the European Union, as of March of this year the jobless rate for under-25's averaged about 21 percent, less than half of Spain's, according to the bloc's statistical agency Eurostat. Even the rate in bailed-out Greece is lower, at 36 percent.

Last year the Spanish government passed labor market reforms designed to make it cheaper and easier for businesses to lay off workers and more expensive to use temporary contracts. The idea was to encourage hiring and make employment more stable.

But Allard says the changes are timid at best and that today's young Spaniards — even with foreign language and computer skills — are still effectively shut out of the labor market.

The effects go beyond protests and rallies to shape the structure of the country's society.

Spain has one of Europe's lowest birth rates — 1.4 children per woman of childbearing age — in part because it takes so long for young people to get out of their parents' house, establish a career and start families.

Until that happens, life for many young Spaniards is a form of limbo.

"They cannot become productive. They cannot use their skills. They cannot save. They cannot invest in housing. They are not accumulating wealth that they can leave off in the future," said Allard, an American who has lived in Spain for 25 years.

"These kids are paying our pensions and they are not going to have been able to save anything. It is really scary," Allard said.

Arcadi Oliveres, an applied economist at Autonomous University in Barcelona, said that compared with other European countries Spain offers comparatively little vocational training as an early alternative to going to jam-packed universities.

The result is that Spain churns out few young electricians, say, and legions of university-trained scientists — who end up unemployed and eventually working in vocational-training type jobs, such as electricians, Oliveres said.

"Unlike a structure that is pyramid-shaped in other countries, here there is a real inflation of university graduates," Oliveres said. "As a labor market model it is a bit anomalous."

At Madrid's Complutense University, the red-brick architecture school stands as a symbol of at least part of what has gone wrong in Spain. It and others churned out the architects who designed the millions of homes whose prices rose relentlessly as credit-burning Spaniards snapped them up with zeal thinking they had made a great investment, until the bubble burst and the house of cards came crashing down.

Down the road, at the university's medical school — it dates from 1927 and the facade is still pockmarked with bullet holes from a battle in the 1936-39 civil war — 21-year-old Maria Perez is two weeks away from graduating with a degree in podology and she is far from thrilled. Of her immediate circle of 20 friends and close acquaintances, she says three have jobs.

"There is not a lot of reason to celebrate because you know you are going to keep living with your parents and end up working in a grocery store," she said.