Spain’s “Lost Generation” can be found studying literature in classroom 007 at Madrid’s Complutense University.
Some 28 students sit alert, behind the rows of desks waiting for a series of questions.
How many of them are confident they’ll get a job when they graduate next year? No-one raises a hand.
“What sort of job?” asks one young woman.
“Any,” I venture. A few hands go up.
How many believe they will get a good job? No-one.
Who thinks they will have to leave the country to find the work they want? Almost everyone immediately raises a hand, and a glum look spreads across the faces.
A class with hands held aloft – a grim symbol of the mess Spain finds itself in.
The university dining hall – a concrete walled relic from the ’80s – is a buzz of chatter. Students struggle through canteen meals.
Among them is Jesus Poveda. He is 20 years old, and without much hope of a future here.
“I think we will do well at work,” he says, gesturing towards his fellow diners, “but not in Spain. We should leave the country.”
Opposite him sits Guillermo Lerma, also 20 years old.
“Nowadays … [a] boss prefers someone who is studying because they don’t have to pay too much.” he says.
“You have temporary work here, but not a salary.”
Spanish unemployment is the highest in Europe – and it’s still rising. The number of people looking for work in September rose by 100,000 – the largest increase in that month for 15 years.
I don’t see it as a negative… Youngsters see it as normal to move, to study, to work part of their lives in other countries”
End Quote Valeriano Gomez Labour and immigration minister
Overall some 21% of people are unemployed. Among the young it’s far, far worse. Almost half of all 16 to 24 year olds are without jobs.
It’s an astonishing and devastating statistic for a country that desperately needs a dynamic, thriving and young workforce to help it recover from the housing crisis that plunged this economy into recession.
“It’s a problem not just for them, but for all of us,” believes economics professor Gayle Allard from the Instituto de Empresa in Madrid. She is an American who has lived in Spain for 27 years.
“This is the generation that will be paying for the welfare state and pensions in the future. If they can’t get started with relatively secure, well-paying jobs, start to put away some savings, start to accumulate assets, start paying into the welfare system, where does that leave the rest of us?” she asks.
“It’s going to be backwards. We’re going to be paying for these kids for years and years. It really puts at risk the whole [economic] model.”
The latest recruit to the brain-drain of Spain is Irene Roibas – an economics graduate who’s leaving for the Netherlands. It’s partly for personal reasons, but also because she feels her future will be better secured outside her own country.
“I don’t think that universities are preparing people [here],” she argues. Nor “that students are taking all the opportunities they have”.
Does Spain need to change? “Yes, I think so, definitely.”
Not everyone though is worried about people like Ms Roibas. In the offices of the labour and immigration department, the minister, Valeriano Gomez, believes that youth migration is not a problem.
“I don’t see it as a negative. Spain has changed a lot. Youngsters see it as normal to move, to study, to work part of their lives in other countries.
“I don’t see it as a problem. I see it as a big advantage.”
The European Union of course makes it possible, indeed easy, for the unemployed to head elsewhere to work – although it’s not the totally free labour market many champion, thanks to the language barriers that exist across the continent.
For the country to lose this group of people who could help raise the productivity of Spain, which is quite low, is a tragedy”
End Quote Prof Gayle Allard Instituto de Empresa
So Europe provides some sort of escape valve for unemployed Spanish youth. Many head for the UK, for France, but also to the US and Latin America.
Venezuela’s need for engineers is said to be attractive to many Spanish.
In time the hope will be that they return to Spain, with the experience and desire to help rebuild the economy.
But much of Europe will not attract them. Youth unemployment across the EU is – on average – high at one in five.
Spain is caught up in the debt crisis that’s hitting Europe. The government insists things will improve, but some fear that, without the young, it will take longer.
“For the country to lose this group of people who could help raise the productivity of Spain, which is quite low, is a tragedy,” says Prof Allard.
In the university canteen many agree with that.
Across Europe, youth unemployment is rising. And just like the continent’s economic crisis, there is no end in sight.