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24 February 2015

What’s it like to be a teenager in Gibraltar?

Young journalist Eve Maddock-Jones explores teenage life on the Rock, where young people get a free education, enjoy debating politics, and the beer is tax-free... 

By New Statesman

Situated at the tip of Spain at Europe’s southernmost point, Gibraltar resembles a small limestone jewel glistening in the sun across the straits from Africa. This British Overseas Territory embodies a unique blend of heritage and politics, a product of Gibraltar’s Spanish and British connections. Gibraltarian teenagers live in a privileged and multi-cultural world, and that brings with it both liberties and responsibilities.    

Teenage kicks

In many ways, young Gibraltarians find themselves very lucky. For instance, the territory’s tax-free status means that many teenage indulgences such as alcohol, clothes, and food are cheaper here than they are for teenage peers elsewhere. Gibraltar’s close quarters makes the Rock a safe place for teenagers to live out their social lives; despite a “cooped-up environment”, we very rarely feel the need to cross over the border. Even in the summer, there is minimal migration to Spain for concerts and entertainment. Actually, more people are being drawn to Gibraltar as the Ministry of Culture continues to develop new tourist-friendly events.

Gibraltarians are also given a free education, paid for by the government – from nursery school right up until the end of university. As a result, students are left unburdened by the strangling debt that so many others suffer from. However, this can also leave young people feeling an added pressure to take advantage of their education. While the promise of a government-funded university education is something teenagers look forward to, many have qualms about the same-sex setup of our secondary education. The majority of teenagers see the system as “old-fashioned” and campaign for an integrated secondary school of mixed gender.  

Leaving the nest

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Gibraltar will open its first local university on September 1st 2015. This is a big next step. The new institute is expected to have a demand but surprisingly, not from its local teenage population. The reality is that Gibraltarian teenagers crave the freedom of an overseas education, and are therefore generally enticed to study abroad. Whilst Gibraltar is an idyllic place to live, young people are excited by the prospects of living outside of the Rock for the new experiences which await them in a different setting. But for all the reasons Gibraltar is a paradise for its local youth – a cheap, safe and sunny lifestyle – it will no doubt draw international students to take their place when Gibraltarian teenagers head abroad.  

As with their university education, the teenagers of Gibraltar generally see opportunities abroad more desirable for jobs and careers. Not that Gibraltar lacks job prospects; quite the contrary – Gibraltar has a flourishing jobs market in the finance and law sector, consequential of its tax-free status. Members of the “big four” finance companies of the world, Deloitte for example, have a base in Gibraltar and offer internship courses in combination with university funding for future jobs within their company. But for young people in Gibraltar the curiosity and freedom of a world beyond the Straits of Gibraltar is too tempting to keep many based at home.

Yet despite our desire to fly the nest, Gibraltar can feel like a utopia for teenagers. In fact, it is what we take for granted as teenagers (free education, and the safety and security of the community) that might draw us to return later on in life to set up our own children’s future.  

On politics

Gibraltarians encourage teenagers to have opinions on local politics. One of the recent talking points has been around the government’s proposal to reduce the voting age from 18 to 16. Surprisingly, a survey conducted amongst 16-18 year olds at Westside High School – one of the two same sex high schools in Gibraltar – found that most young people disagreed with the idea. Yet our enthusiastic debate around the issue shows the confidence Gibraltarian teenagers have to express what they want and believe. To further encourage their political engagement, visits such as Gibraltar Youth Ambassadors to the EU in Brussels and UN? New York summits are offered; giving young Gibraltarians opportunities to explore the modern politics affecting their lives.    

For local teens, the conflict with Spain is both a daily aspect of our lives and also a wider piece of our Gibraltarian identity. It affects our day-to-day experiences; crossing over international borders and an active airport runaway (which bisects the main road in and out of Gibraltar) several times a week is nothing out of the ordinary for us. Traffic and long queues are a normal part of life. This unique political situation with Spain gives us a political mindset and makes us opinionated. Furthermore, the pleasant lives of Gibraltar’s teens are a contrast to those of our Spanish peers across the border in La Linea who are living through a harsh economic recession and high unemployment rates. The contrast of our different lives casts a shadow over the Rock.

Practically all Gibraltarians see themselves as independent from Spain. Young Gibraltarians see the divide as an inherited one – a historical argument. To some teenagers, the dispute is like “a feud between old dogs”. But there is also a sense of modern defiance about the issue. For example, you’ll witness displays of national pride on Gibraltar’s National Day on September 10th, such as wearing red and white (our national colours). Here teenagers contribute to the shared celebrations in an effort to show how grateful they feel about their home.

Eve Maddock-Jones is a student and writer living in Gibraltar

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