Despite sweeping fiscal austerity measures, Spain’s ten-year recovery from the worldwide Great Recession and housing market crash has remained slow. The national unemployment rate peaked at over 27 percent in 2013, and the hardest hit remain Spain’s youth. For Spaniards aged 18 to 25, the unemployment rate recently dipped below 40 percent for the first time since 2010. The lack of youth in professional sectors of the economy has dampened economic growth and strained Spanish families. “It’s a shame,” Alejandro Díaz de Argandoña Araújo, a college student from Madrid, told the HPR. “At the end of the day, young people are the future of the country. We want to get jobs and learn careers. It’s going to be a big problem in the future if young people don’t have experience.”
Although many blame bad policy for Spain’s widespread youth disenfranchisement, the true narrative is far more complex, striking evenly across economic and cultural bounds. The problem has been so far-reaching that new, youth-centered parties that have emerged which have ruptured the nation’s traditionally two-party system.
Díaz de Argandoña, 19, is in his second year at the Universidad Pontificia Comillas, a small, private university where he is joint majoring in telecommunications engineering and business administration. A native of Alicante on Spain’s southeastern coast, Díaz de Argandoña currently lives and studies in Madrid, a four-hour drive from his home. While he doesn’t work during the school year, Díaz de Argandoña was searching for a summer job when he spoke with the HPR in June. “So far this summer I have been giving private lessons in math and Spanish … for some pocket money” Díaz de Argandoña said.
While Díaz de Argandoña attends school away from home and works seasonally for some extra spending money, not all young Spaniards share the same lifestyle. Diego Gutiérrez Sánchez, 20, is a third-year student at the Universidad Complutense de Madrid, a top-tier public university. Gutiérrez grew up in Madrid and is living at home with his parents and siblings while he completes his undergraduate studies. In an interview with the HPR, Gutiérrez noted that staying so close to home is pretty normal among his peers: “Many students at Complutense are from Madrid. People don’t really go out of state for school.”
As a young person without a degree, Gutiérrez explained that it can be difficult to find work and that he usually only works during summer break.Díaz de Argandoña agreed with Gutiérrez that young Spaniards who seek work while still in school look for summer jobs on temporary contracts in tourism and hospitality. However, Díaz de Argandoña added that job-hunting often becomes more difficult after school. “People over 23 who have graduated college have a huge struggle to find work in their fields,” Díaz de Argandoña said, hoping he does not eventually face those same issue himself.
Realizing Spain’s economic difficulties, Díaz de Argandoña chose his joint major in business because he worried that even in a traditionally high-demand field like engineering, he could still have difficulties finding a job. With this second major, Díaz de Argandoña hopes to display a broader skillset when applying for jobs. With similar concerns in mind, Gutiérrez noted that he chose to become a veterinarian because with “the small supply of vets, [he] could probably find a job after college.”
Gutiérrez and Díaz de Argandoña are roughly the same age, and at the same stage in their life, but they are from entirely different parts of the country and pursue completely different academic interests. Gutiérrez represents the distinct cultural trends that inhibit most Spanish students from leaving home for college. Díaz de Argandoña, who is on scholarship, represents those who can afford to study away from their families. Despite this divide, however, their experiences as students and soon-to-be members of the job market have overlapped significantly.
El Statu Quo Español
In many ways, high unemployment rates in Spain have become a norm, especially when analyzed against employment trends among college-aged youth in the United States. Americans have a unique culture of post-secondary college attendance, with most young people moving away from home and searching for employment right after college. This is not the case in Spain. Most Spanish students never “go off to school.” Like Gutiérrez, students in Spain predominantly commute to local colleges, and many continue living at home even after they earn their bachelor’s degrees. In early 2016, Spanish news station Antena 3 reported that half of all young people between 18 and 34 live with their parents.
Not just a minor cultural idiosyncrasy, the extended home life of young Spaniards actually depresses the economy. Stagnant mobility and stubborn family ties inhibit labor force growth and skew unemployment metrics when young professionals become disenchanted with the modern economy. Perhaps most significantly, work-ready adults have no incentive to seek employment and enter the labor force when some of their major personal expenses, such as rent, are covered by their family. In its current state, Spain’s top-heavy labor economy is over-saturated with middle-aged workers and can only support large-scale youth employment in temporary or seasonal low-paying jobs.
In an interview with the HPR, José Manuel Martínez Sierra, a Spanish political scientist at Harvard University who focuses on Spanish and European politics, explained how job hunting for educated young Spaniards connects to the nation’s recent political unrest. “Unemployment is extremely linked to socioeconomic inequality,” he said, emphasizing that much of Spain’s political turmoil began with the middle and upper-middle classes. Workers from this cross-section of society are mobilized by their struggles to find decent employment, unlike the working class, whose interests have rarely been at the forefront of political conversations.
“We have on the one hand unemployment [for] well-educated people, and on the other hand an internal devaluation of salaries. These people are often holding temporary jobs with low salaries,” Martínez commented. He continued, “Nobody wants to live with their parents if they have a decent job and can afford it. The problem is not the laziness or training of Spaniards, it’s the job market.”
“If you are educated, the job that you have and the salary that you get doesn’t allow you to buy a house or have a decent living. And if you do, you certainly wouldn’t be able to support a family or have a baby,” Martínez explained. Poor job prospects for educated Spaniards has led to a brain drain among qualified professionals—since 2010, the country has seen negative net migration rates. As Díaz de Argandoña and Gutiérrez have shown, young Spaniards are aware of the economic realities plaguing Spain, this has led them to disrupt the nation’s political system.
Spain’s ever-erratic labor economy made the nation ripe for unrest. The highly developed democracy, with millions of educated but unemployed young people living with their parents, has faced protests, demonstrations, and political upheaval. One such protest, on May 15, 2011, featured major demonstrations across Spain against austerity policies and unemployment. Hundreds of thousands of protesters, many of them young people, occupied the Puerta del Sol, a major public square in Madrid, in an Occupy-inspired show of community organizing and political solidarity. These demonstrators branded themselves Los Indignados, “the indignant,” and their youth-centered protest marked the start of the anti-austerity 15-M Movement. Political strategists based in Madrid and Barcelona have capitalized on this sort of civil unrest, energy, and ‘indignance’ to drive the Spanish political system into an unprecedented new era.
Since Spain’s transition to democracy in the late 1970s, the Spanish parliament has maintained a two-party system. The socialist PSOE party and the conservative PP party have alternated majorities for almost 30 years. This power-sharing was upended when the Madrid-based Podemos Party and the Barcelona-based Ciudadanos Party entered the scene, augmenting the Indignados movement’s infrastructure and captivating many of the latter’s supporters. By 2015, a traditionally two-way race transmuted into a four-way political brawl.
The center-right Ciudadanos—or “C’s”, as they’re often referred to—primarily sought to advance national unity and prevent Catalonian secession, while the far left Podemos emphasized economic issues. “Podemos, especially, tackled the issue of economic disaffection. The majority vote of Podemos was younger, college-educated individuals who were well-trained but unemployed or with low-paying jobs,” Martínez noted. The charismatic leaders of Podemos and C’s (Pablo Iglesias and Alberto Rivera, respectively) heavily contested the PP’s and PSOE’s establishment candidates, employing anti-establishment rhetoric to woo young Spaniards like Gutiérrez and Díaz de Argandoña.
As a college student and native of the nation’s capital and largest city, Gutiérrez notes the anti-establishment phenomenon in his everyday interactions. “I don’t think young people feel the same sense of inertia that I have seen older voters in Spain feel about their political party. The older they are, the more difficult it is for them to change their vote.” Gutiérrez continued, “They believe that maybe if they vote for one of these new parties, things could get worse. But for us, we feel less inclined to stick with the status quo.” Most adults in Gutiérrez’s community tend to support the conservative PP, and though he and his friends do not discuss politics frequently, Gutiérrez noted that “most of them, those who are less influenced by their parents, I guess they support Podemos or Ciudadanos.”
The anti-establishment message clearly resonated with a large cross-section of Spanish voters. In the 2015 parliamentary elections, Podemos won 69 of 350 seats and became the third-largest party in Spain after only two years of existence. Though they fell short of a majority, Podemos, C’s, and other minor parties held 137 of the 350 seats in parliament. This insurgent bloc upended the power of the PP and PSOE and kicked-off a year-long leadership struggle. After months without a government, King Felipe VI was forced to call a new election. Nonetheless, Podemos and C’s remained bitterly in conflict with each other, unable to reconcile left and right-wing political views, despite their shared dislike for the status quo. In the new elections in 2016, the PP’s incumbent prime minister succeeded in maintaining control via a minority coalition in large part because of the incoherence of the new opposition parties.
Gutiérrez and Díaz de Argandoña’s experiences demonstrate that politics has recently been less about policy or ideology and more about breaking from traditional establishment politics. In this way, the struggles of students and young professionals, 39 percent of whom remain unemployed and half of whom still live with their parents, have served as mere talking points in parliament without significantly influencing any political agenda. The inability of the conservative PP and socialist PSOE parties to address the economic grievances of the educated middle class has made them vulnerable to the rising anti-establishment trend. However, so long as these anti-establishment groups remain fractured among the far-left Podemos and the center-right C’s, there is hope for the ruling PP regime or a PP-PSOE coalition to put forward a comprehensive, proactive jobs plan suitable to their bases and to disaffected young voters nationwide. If they fail, and if some new movement consolidates the supporters of Podemos and C’s into a coherent political ideology (and not a messy set of anti-establishment movements that scatter the political spectrum), it could mean the end of the traditional parties’ power-sharing inertia not just now, but for the foreseeable future.
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