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It’s the economy, stupid

You study hard, you get a university degree and that, you would think, should put you in good stead to land a decent job. Right? No. In Spain, unless you are one of a lucky few, at best you can look forward to years of underpaid work in a sector that has nothing to do with your chosen career, at worst unemployment. Oh, and living with your parents throughout.


The young protestors who have converged on Madrid’s Puerta del Sol square – and, increasingly, on squares in cities across Spain – under the banner of the 15-M Movement have myriad demands. They want political change, a more open participative democracy, corrupt politicians out of office, the repeal of “unjust” laws, a reform of benefits for the political class, tax reform, a referendum on the monarchy, a higher minimum wage, the full separation of Church and state… the list goes on. But although the protestors’ demands are heartfelt and sweep across many socio-political areas, it is ultimately – and understandably – the protestors’ wallets that have driven them to camp out in Madrid and other cities.

Wallets, as well as hearts and minds, are driving the crowds to Puerta del Sol. Photo: Sas-Click

What is surprising is not the fact that they are demonstrating, but the fact that they did not protest sooner.

Unemployment across Spain exceeds 20 percent but among the under-30s it is running at 45 percent and has been stuck at around that level since the global economic crisis erupted and Spain’s property bubble burst more than three years ago. But even before then, youth unemployment in Spain was tragically high; the result of an inflexible labor market that even during the country’s boom years over the better part of the first decade of the 21st century kept many young people from finding decent jobs and trapped millions in low-paying, temporary contracts.

As Iberosphere pointed out more than a year ago, given that half of all workers on temporary contracts are under the age of 30, even in good times, they are forced to live with a debilitating sense of job insecurity, which prevents many from moving out of their parents house, renting or buying their own home and  puts them off starting a family – a major cause of Spain’s low birth rate.

Temporary workers can expect to receive little, if any, training from their employers, who don’t want to spend the money on building up the skills of someone who will be the first out the door should the business situation change. And, because of that, workers on temporary contracts find it hard to secure pay rises and progress in their careers, hence a large number of Spaniards in their 20s or 30s – many of them with university degrees – regularly find themselves jumping from job to job and earning €1,000 a month or less. Six out of 10 Spanish university graduates are not doing the jobs they studied to do, the highest rate in the EU.

The Spanish language even has its own word for them, coined, notably, not during the economic crisis but at the height of Spain’s boom years in 2005 in a letter to daily El País by Carolina Alguacil titled: “Yo soy mileurista” (“I am a mileurista”). The word caught on and mileurista came to encapsulate the problems and fears of a large part of an entire generation of workers.

As James Badcock notes on Trans-Iberian:  “When I first moved here I was taken aback by the general acceptance among Spain’s middle-class youth of a kind of social contract whereby a period of exploitation was considered part of the rites of passage… It was like being an intern – but for a whole decade until you reached your early or mid-thirties.”

No wonder then that young people, led largely by mileuristas and the unemployed who if they could find work would all but certainly become part of that group, have taken to the streets. In their belated protest, coinciding with the run-up to local elections on Sunday, they are demanding long-overdue change. Spain’s entrenched political elite have no option but to listen – it remains to be seen whether they will act on what they hear.

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Published: May 20 2011
Category: Iberoblog, Featured
Republication: Creative Commons, non-commercial
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5 Comments for “It’s the economy, stupid”

  1. Micahel Clarke

    Unemployed Scruffy Spanish Students are welcome to work… in the UK, Germany, etc. Why don’t they go for a year or 2? Like many Polish, Lithuanians, Hungarian students have in the past. Why? Because they are unambitious and LAZY. Before I started UNI in the late 80’s during a recession, I proudly worked in a hotel and pub (among other jobs). There is plenty of work in Spain, but this spoiled generation thinks that cleaning toilets is too beneath them. Thus, we see armies of Equadorian, Bulgarian, & Ukranian Nannies, Cleaners and Builders on the metro each day! Why? Because the “Spanish” youth are too lazy to take a “real” job for a couple of years. They all want to be Civil Servants. Too many pigs at the trough of an overly generous state!

    • I tend to agree with you Michael. I live with my Spanish GF together in Madrid and we had long discussions about the current situation as I also left my country at my early 20s to job all around the world due to the economic situation. Now here in Spain, I am negatively impressed how many Spanish students complain the whole time one one side, but aren’t willing to show flexibility on the other side.

      It’s always easy to complain but you are also asked to make an effort and move your ass to achieve something. I live here now 10 months and already earn more money than many of my GFs friends, although we have the same educational background.

      And the point, that they are “forced” to live at their parents until 30 is just ridiculous. Many of them are just not independent enough and look surprised at me when telling, that I was living at my own place with 16 and already working that age.

  2. Michael

    While I agree to some extent about the youth not being flexible I must put you right when you say that there is plenty of work in Spain when clearly, there is not. I live and work in the Valencia region and I can assure you, there are NO jobs here.

  3. LoCortezNoQuitaLoValiente

    Indeed. The Spanish people of today are too proud and lazy. As long as the young refuse to do any hard work and EARN their right to be proud, Spain will continue to be a magnet for countries that export workers that aren’t ashamed to do some hard work. And these workers end up living better than many of these ‘proud Spaniards’, once they save up enough euros. Who knows, if things continue these foreign workers will one day be too rich to do the hard work. And the Spanish people will have no choice but to work for these immigrants.

  4. I do agree that jobs exist, but if you are getting Paro or even the temp help of 420 € and with a little black work, they simply dont want to work. Which has been clearly shown, by undercover programs offering work to pick fruits for 1000-1200-1500€…

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