Who will take care of Spain’s lost generation?

Marching for dignity.
Marching for dignity.
Image: Reuters/Jon Nazca
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“The crisis is over,” declared Spanish prime minister Mariano Rajoy earlier this summer. We’ve heard this kind of announcements before. In fact, it seems like every September since the global financial crisis hit Spain in 2008, politicians of all colors and affiliations have promised an end to the prolonged economic grievances of the country. Perhaps what’s new this time is that politicians were not the only ones saying it: Major world think tanks have forecasted that Spain would increase its job market and have a positive growth rate of 3% by the end of the year.

With general elections set for Dec. 20, politicians are celebrating the economic forecast. The old-establishment parties are worried about losing the de facto bipartisan system; new parties are emerging criticizing the status quo and the ingrained corruption of the Spanish political system. Recent debates have focused on the welfare state model, labor reforms and the secessionist movement in Catalonia.

But no one is talking about the potentially one million (or more) Spaniards between the ages of 15 and 24 who can’t find a job. Or about those, like me, who have fled the country looking for better opportunities abroad.

Growing up is scary, but it’s even scarier when it feels like there are no job prospects—no matter how hard you study or how committed you are to the search. Or when your parents are fighting eviction, or moving back to their grandparents house because they can’t afford to pay their mortgage any more.

The impact of the crisis on the social fabric of Spain is undeniable. More than three million jobs have been destroyed since 2008 and most of these people still aren’t back on track; one in every four people in Spain remains unemployed toady. The numbers are even more dire for the country’s young people, with one in every two Spaniards in that critical 15 to 24 age group still unemployed.

I was just starting college when the crisis hit. My younger brother was about to enter high school. For the next six years, we saw both our parents lose their jobs; our aunts and uncles were laid-off; our friends, with their fresh university degrees, couldn’t find a place to work—not even for free. In just a few years, we found ourselves pushed two or three steps down the economic ladder and deprived of any sense of financial security. And our story was not unique, not by any means.

But whereas I was already in college, my brother and my cousins—just as most of my friends’ younger siblings—still had to decide what they would do with their future. But what’s to choose when there doesn’t seem to be any successful formula?

And if education doesn’t guarantee a job anymore, perhaps it is not surprising that Spain has the highest dropout rates in the European Union. A full 36% percent of 25 to 34 year olds haven’t finished their secondary education, compared to 11% of European Union citizens. And students from low socioeconomic background are twice as likely to be low performers or drop out.

So they choose to continue being children.

As Carles Ventura, a therapist in Spain who specializes in teenagers, put it, 16- and 17-years-olds especially are taking refuge in the crisis to cover up their fears of growing up. These young people are asking him how to find motivation in their studies. “At first, the easy thing to say is ‘the crisis is so big, I won’t find a job,’” Ventura tells Quartz. But he added there are wider, deeper issues that underpin these fears, including a systemic lack of confidence and a general fear of growing up.

“Young people know that the crisis makes it more difficult to them,” Ventura says. “They’ve been studying for a while, and they know it’s still going to be a while until they find a job, and now that is not even guaranteed.”

More than 25% of Spaniards in that 15 to 24 age group are actually doing nothing; they are not studying, training or employed—one of the highest rates in the developed world. This is very problematic: Research shows that lack of employment during adolescence generally translates to lower employment rates in adulthood.

It’s not surprising then that a recent study (link in Spanish) conducted by IE University found that the defining characteristic for young adults in Spain is that they are “uncertain about their future”—as opposed to the ubiquitous “oriented to the digital world” used to define teenagers elsewhere.

Rajoy, who’s running for reelection on Sunday, said recently (link in Spanish) “before, unemployment was rising every day, now it is going down every day.” Never mind that this is not true, (link in Spanish) Spaniards have stopped believing in it. A Pew Research survey shows that 80% of the population sees the economic situation as “bad.”

Unfortunately for those who continued studying after 2008 and have finished college in the past few years, what the future holds looks grim—at best. And if moving out of your parents house is the first step into adulthood, young Spaniards are still very much children—eight in every ten (link in Spanish) Spaniards under 30 still live with their parents.

“Paro, exilio, o precariedad”—unemployment, exile, or precariousness—has become something of a mantra for many disillusioned young Spaniards. And there are efforts to try and change the narrative. In 2011, waves of anti-austerity movements expanded across Europe. In Madrid, they spawned collectives like Juventudes Sin Futuro (“Youngsters Without a Future”). Roughly translating to Futureless Youth, the collective has created campaigns like “No nos vamos, nos echan,” Spanish for “We are not leaving, we are being kicked out.”

And yet youth unemployment has been barely represented in the general elections debates (only mentioning the need to bring back researchers and educated people from abroad). Even the left-wing party Podemos (“We Can”), whose constituency is made up of many of those unemployed youth, hasn’t made the issue a central point of its campaign. Since it garnered an unexpectedly high result in the 2014 European elections, Podemos has threatened the status quo of the traditional parties in Spain, getting enough power to steer public debate. And yet, of the 215 measures (link in Spanish) in their political platform, only two mention youth unemployment, addressing the issue in a tangential way.

Politicians might think the worst of the crisis is coming to an end, but some of us still don’t know if we’ll be able to make it back home. Or if the years put into educations will pay off with dignifying job. The impact of more than seven years of sustained job destruction will loom for years to come. As Spanish economist Manuel de la Rocha put it in an interview with the Financial Times on June 25, “We will get out of this crisis but there will be a generation that has been left behind. A lot of young people have seen their dreams and aspirations evaporate.”