Spain's 'Lost Generation' threatens social fabric


MADRID (AP) — Daniel Lorente has worked construction, flipped burgers at McDonald's, been a camp counselor, telemarketing representative and doorman.

But Lorente's part-time jobs never lasted more than seven months: He was laid off from each one as Spain's economic gloom deepened into a historic crisis. Now the 21-year-old is staring into a dead-end future.

"How am I going to make it if I don't have a steady job, to pay a mortgage, for example?" asks Lorente. "Or for a wedding, or anything involving a big expense? You can't get anywhere."

Lorente is stuck among Spain's "Lost Generation" of 20-somethings, with no work and no real prospects in sight: Roughly half of all Spaniards between 16 and 24 are jobless, the highest level among the 17 nations that use the euro. It's a devastating picture of blighted youth that threatens to distort Spain's social fabric for years to come, dooming dreams, straining family structures and eroding the well-being of a rapidly aging population.

"This puts the whole welfare state at risk," said Gayle Allard, a labor market specialist at Madrid's IE Business School. "The young people who are coming on the market now are the lost generation. They are losing the advantage of their youth and energy and that does not come back."

The staggering jobless figures — 48.6 percent for Spaniards between 16 and 24; 39 percent for those ages 20-29 — hold dire consequences for a country that grew accustomed to prosperity on the back of a property boom that collapsed in 2008.

The 1.6 million unemployed teens and young adults in the nation of 47 million risk never having a decent start to a career. They probably won't accumulate assets like their own homes or savings until they are in their 40s. And they then will likely face much higher taxes to maintain Spain's costly social welfare system.

What's more, they're expected to put off having children or have fewer than their parents, slashing a birth rate that's already declining just as Spain's large baby boom generation begins to retire. That means fewer people to absorb the costs of caring for the swelling ranks of pensioners.

"It's a historic waste," Allard said. "The economy has not been transformed into a higher-productivity economy even though all those educated young workers were available for the task. I would not be surprised if eventually they rebelled against the tax burden."

Anger and frustration among young adults have already taken root. Thousands erected protest camps last spring and summer in Madrid and Barcelona in illegal tent cities set up in central plazas. Unrest erupted again last week when students in Valencia protesting austerity cuts clashed with riot police, generating nationwide demonstrations against alleged police brutality.

Some Spaniards fear that Spain's relatively new democracy, launched in 1978 after decades of dictatorship, may become threatened if an entire generation ends up convinced they will never attain the same lifestyle as their parents.

"The main risk for the country is we could lose a generation who go away and the young people who stay will have less education, condemning Spain to crisis for many years to come," said Ricardo Ibarra, the 27-year-old president of The Spanish Youth Council, which represents groups for young adults.

"In 10 years we could have populism instead of democracy, and we cannot waste our democracy and throw it away."

Segundo Gonzalez — a 23-year-old university student majoring in economics — says the only job offers he has received are for menial positions, for no more than eight hours a week with monthly pay of euro300 ($400).

"If those of us who should be entering employment have to leave the country or can't get a job, or can only get poorly paid and low-tax work, it's going to be very complicated for us to be able to sustain our parents' pensions," said Gonzalez.

"Future prospects are very complicated, bleak."

In a scene mirrored nationwide, Lorente lives at home with his mother and an unemployed 28-year-sister. Like many other young Spaniards, he thinks Spain's economy is so bad as it heads toward recession for the second time in four years that he might not be able to move out until he hits 40.

But with the overall unemployment rate now at a eurozone high 22.8 percent, even family support networks are being eroded — as young people find they can rely far less on handouts and shelter from mom and dad.

And with low-paying jobs the norm — often euro1,000 ($1,325) a month or less — college graduates are increasingly moving abroad to do work below their qualifications, for example as bartenders or hotel workers in Germany or Britain.

Last year more people left Spain than came to settle for the first time in a decade. While 418,000 moved to this country, 508,000 departed, the National Statistics Institute reported.

Ibarra of The Spanish Youth Council said his sister, a bank worker, was making euro18,000 ($24,000) a year but moved to Switzerland where she's now getting more than euro60,000 ($80,000) in a new bank job she likes more. Another friend of Ibarra's who worked with computers in Spain is now a bartender in Scotland.

"The feeling is growing in our country that if you want a good life, you have to go away," Ibarra said. "Young adults are leaving for anything, and the typical profile is a professional who can't get anything or can't get what he wants."

Many Spaniards are reminded of the 1940s and 1950s, when men with no opportunities at home left for construction or factory jobs in countries like France, Germany and Switzerland. But the current flight is more worrisome because the nation is bleeding some of its best and brightest.

Spain's phenomenal boom saw a massive increase in Spaniards getting college degrees in the expectation that good times would translate into lucrative opportunities.

The reality turned out to be different, due to the financial crisis and rigid labor structures in which older workers enjoyed generous benefits and were almost impossible to cut loose.

Employers cringed at giving new hires open-ended contracts with the same benefits, so younger workers often ended up with temporary ones, sometimes lasting just a few months. During the growth years, companies rolled these contracts over, but they now let them run out, boosting the ranks of the young unemployed.

Experts say professionally trained young adults are increasingly dumbing down their resumes to apply for jobs as janitors, secretaries and nurses aides.

"They do this because they think if they don't that they'll be turned down because they'll be seen as frustrated and overqualified," said Alex Navas, a sociology professor at the University of Navarra.

Reforms were passed this month that are aimed at slashing the high cost of laying off older and less-productive workers, a move that could open up new opportunities for young people.

But for now, economists predict that joblessness will likely get worse with recession virtually guaranteed and the new labor laws prompting businesses to eliminate more jobs before they start creating new ones.

Eric Lluent, an underemployed freelance journalist in Barcelona, teamed up with a jobless friend to set up blog called "The New Poor" that allows struggling young Spaniards to document their stories.

The only rule is that contributors must submit photos, their names, and tell their stories in the first person.

"If things stay the way they are, we'll all have to emigrate," said one contributor, 29-year-old architect Claudia Freixas.

Lluent, who lives with his parents, himself is gearing up to leave Spain — for Iceland. While that country's economy imploded three years ago, he's betting the tourism business will come back, meaning he might land a job in a restaurant, bar or hotel.

But the 25-year-old Lluent worries that Spain is creating an entire generation that will become alienated from society.

In his own posting, he wrote:

"I'm part of the Lost Generation, those young 20-somethings stuck in the ditch of a society that we increasingly see less as ours and identify more as the enemy."


"The New Poor" blog (in Catalan and Spanish):

Alan Clendenning can be reached at: