'Lost generation' poses threat to Spain's social fabric

Updated: 2012-02-28 08:16

(China Daily)

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MADRID - Daniel Lorente has worked in the construction industry, flipped burgers at McDonald's, been a camp counselor, a telemarketing representative and a 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?" asked 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 300 eursos ($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."

Associated Press