Madrid’s young and jobless

As austerity grips Spain, a generation faces a future of long-term unemployment.

In the shadow of a Madrid train station, Antonio sits and waits. His ticket bears no destination - only a number for his place in the queue at a nearby employment office. "I have been out of work for almost two years," he tells me. He left school at 16 and did odd jobs in construction. Although he is only 21, his face is gaunt.

More than 40 per cent of Spaniards under the age of 25 are unemployed: the highest rate in Europe and more than double that of the UK in the same age range (17.7 per cent). The Spanish media have a name for the million-plus young people in Antonio's situation: "Generation Neither-Nor" -neither in work, nor in education.

For those who have a job, things aren't much better. Ana is 29 and, like many of her friends, lives with her parents. Five years ago, she graduated from Valencia University with a degree in biology and now, after doing temporary jobs, works as a waitress. We meet on her only night off on a bench in the main square, as she drinks rum from a bottle. In fluent English, she tells me that this money-saving method is "getting pissed, the typical Spanish way".

The number of graduates has more than quadrupled since the transition from military dictatorship to democracy in the mid-1970s. "Our parents wanted us to have the education they couldn't have," says one 30-year-old taxi driver from Seville with two degrees. Growth during the past decade has been driven by the construction and tourism industries, which seldom require graduates. Over the same period, the wage difference between graduates and school leavers dropped by 40 per cent.

Graduates such as Ana are known as mileuristas, so called because they are multilingual, well educated and barely able to earn €1,000 (mil euros)a month. Ana had dreams of living all over the world as a teacher. Now the dream is just to move away from her parents. "Young people are living a contradiction," says Sylvia Sazatornil, youth representative at the General Union of Workers headquarters in Madrid. "They are the best-educated generation that Spain has ever produced and somehow they face the worst prospects."

But not all make it to university. Almost a third of Spaniards drop out of school with no qualifications, lured by the prospect of making a quick buck in construction. "You had 16- and 17-year-olds asking themselves: 'Should I spend three years or more studying? Or should I start work in construction and earn €2,000 a month?' - well over the national average," explains José García-Montalvo, professor of economics at Pompeu Fabra University in Barcelona. At the height of the construction frenzy, Spain built more homes than France and Germany combined. Some estimate that more than a million remain unsold.

Much of the growth in jobs during the boom years was through temporary contracts. Mainly young, the temporary workers have few rights and are easy to fire. The incumbent older workers are on fiercely protected indefinite contracts with the cost of dismissal as high as three and a half years' salary. Spain is an extreme case within southern Europe of what economists call a dual-labour market. One side is sheltered from risk, leaving the other to weather the harsh winds of fortune. Last year, the construction industry shed a quarter of its workforce. Temporary jobs fell by 35 per cent while the salaries of permanent employees rose by 4 per cent. Since the financial crisis of 2008, the jobless rate among young people has more than doubled.

Picket people

Antonio has now been waiting for two hours. "The government isn't doing enough to help people in this situation," Sazatornil says. Across the EU, job counsellors cover an average of 50 unemployed people each. In Spain, they are responsible for more than 150. With the government forced to make severe spending cuts to ease its debt burden, more help seems unlikely.

In despair at the Socialist government's apparent betrayal, Spain's unions called a national strike on 29 September. Manuel works as a barman in a budget hotel; he led a midnight picket through Madrid's theatre district. "I will not sleep," he promises, "I will not rest until I have told my colleagues how the government is ­taking away their rights." Pensions have been frozen and public-sector salaries cut by 5 per cent this year. Reforms have been passed that will curb the power of permanent employees. Yet most economists agree that this is needed if the country is to build a sustainable future away from the property market's boom and bust. Yet little has been said about the problems facing young people. The typical trade union member is like Manuel: male and in his fifties.

Ana did not strike. If any other group were losing out, there might have been more outrage. Yet the reality is that many of those who appear to be sheltered from risk are supporting their children financially. Family life can be deceptively comfortable. "If I wasn't with my parents, this crisis would be double," says Ana.

The day after the strike, the Moody's ratings agency downgraded the Spanish government's debt, meaning that the country will have to pay more to borrow money on the international markets. It's one thing to slash public spending, but the question remains the same for investors as for the country's young people: where is the growth going to come from?

As we part, Antonio winks and smiles. "Maybe I'll get lucky. Something will come up and I'll be a rich man." For his generation of Spaniards, such luck will be hard to come by.