Spain's lost generation: Young, jobless, desperate

Protesters with Spain's Indignant movement raise their hands in the air during a rally at Puerta del Sol May 15, 2012, in Madrid.
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(The New Republic) "They say we're a lost generation. But it's more like we're a paralyzed generation," Mario tells me over a beer on a sweltering Monday afternoon in Toledo. He is a twenty-five year-old Spaniard, and already his future prospects look unsalvageable. He holds a degree in visual communications, but irregular work and a negligible income have forced him to move back in with his parents. At the moment, he scrapes by working as a temp at regional post-offices, hoping each day that some employee might call in sick.

"I'm basically tied to my cell phone," he starts to say. And for a fleeting second, as the words hang there in the sun-drenched Plaza Horno de Magdalena, he might be in New York, London or Berlin, lamenting some high-intensity job with around-the-clock demands. But when he motions to his phone, it's not a BlackBerry. "I need to take anything I can get," he continues, "and so when they call me the morning of or the night before, I go; wherever it is."

Mario's desperation is a familiar feeling: Unemployment in Spain is 25 percent, and youth unemployment hovers at double that. Of all the jobs lost to the country's protracted recession, about half have come from the construction sector alone. Spain's Castille-La Mancha -- Toledo is its capital -- is especially hard hit. The country's flourishing construction industry helped support this desert-streaked region during the boom years. Union workers tell me that the chief business then was the manufacture of doors. It was a nondescript fact of life that now creaks with a grimly literary suggestion: Once a portal to other places and ascendant prospects, Castille-La Mancha is a hull of its former self.

Like so many others throughout Spain, Mario's voice has that brittle, dry quality of an old confidence that's begun to splinter. He tells me that he's "not particularly hopeful" about what's in store. To his left sits Raquel -- another Toledo native, the same age as Mario, and a self-professed optimist. She cuts in: "I have two degrees, but I may as well not have studied anything at all." When I ask her about her next move, she says that she's thinking of leaving the country. She mentions a secondary school in Italy where she could teach humanities. Flushing slightly, she quickly adds that job prospects there are only marginally better than in Spain.

Raquel had hit on a familiar pattern among young Spaniards as they agonize over what to do while the economy worsens. An idea flickers with possibility then promptly darkens under a swarm of caveats. To speak with young Spaniards is to listen to the expectations of an entire generation buckling under the weight of a hopelessly constrained economic reality.

The highly articulate, university-educated indignados who have taken to the streets in the big-metropolitan hubs (or who confidently sound off before foreign journalists, for that matter) are only one part of the story of Spain's "lost generation." The other has to do with those who are not as likely to be heard -- mostly because they're not convinced that talking will get them anywhere.

In the words of public policy consultant Jorge Galindo, this other subclass of unemployed remains more or less "invisible." These people left school in their late teens to claim inflated salaries working construction. They are visibly less self-possessed than their educated counterparts, who are buoyed somewhat by the aplomb conferred by a college education and membership in the middle class. The middle-class, university-educated parados (jobless) tend to do two things, according to Galindo. Either they go back to school to get a masters degree and beef up their CV's while waiting out the crisis. Or they leave for places like Germany or England. Those who do that, Galindo says, are "only those who can afford it."

It is even worse for wage laborers who dropped out of school; they are truly stuck. In regions like Castille-La Mancha, dropout rates were especially high, as construction salaries beckoned. Out of work, these people are hanging by the thread of dwindling unemployment checks.

Jesus, a 33 year-old parado, is one such person. We met in Toledo. At seventeen, he embarked on a series of jobs that ranged from agricultural labor to metallurgy and two stints in construction. Only once did he have a fully serviceable contract -- known here as a contrato indefinido -- that furnished benefits and afforded some measure of job-security. The company folded, though, and soon he was back to temporary contracts.

"There are two ways you get paid under those construction contracts," he explained, "in 'A' and in 'B.'" "A" means being paid on the books; "B" off-them, or en negro. Employers routinely paid construction workers large amounts of cash under the table and only nominal "official" salaries. Not only could they avoid paying additional taxes this way; also, it enabled them to pay out less in benefits to the workers they'd eventually let go, since those benefits are tied, in part, to the size of workers' salaries. As Jesus told me, "I ended up getting significantly less benefits than were due me."

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Jonathan Blitzer is a journalist living in Madrid. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.