In Spain, Young People Foot the Bill

Article excerpt

Young Spaniards aged under 30 years receive a fair share of media attention these days. Some of them - like Barcelona's soccer midfielder Andres Iniesta, tennis ace Rafael Nadal or eight times kitesurfing world champion Gisela Pulido - are praised for their merits and are seen as the brightest stars of their generation. But those thousands not in the limelight have a completely different story to tell.

In November 2008, an article in The Economist described the worst economic crisis to have hit Spain in living memory as "the morning after". Indeed, long years of "fiesta" - complete with job security and a real estate boom - came to an abrupt end when the bubble exploded. The awakening was rude and the consequences hardly bearable. Someone obviously had to foot the bill, as the author of that article, Michael Reid, pointed out. It fell first and foremost on the country's youth to do so.

The figures speak for themselves. The country's "best generation ever" in terms of academic background and language skills became the "generation of hopelessness" practically overnight. The youth unemployment rate reached an all-time high of 57% - and the reaction was that of shock and alarm. Analysts in Spain and elsewhere went out of their way to explain what happened and why the country was "different". The whole nation was worried about their sons' and daughters' future - and also about their own future. "Youth unemployment gives me sleepless nights," commented King Juan Carlos I at the time.

The phenomenon was immediately explained as a harmful consequence of a sudden large increase in the country's income - known to experts as the "Dutch disease". In other - simpler - terms, the Sun as a natural resource was being blamed. The pre-crisis years witnessed a spectacular construction and tourism boom, especially in the coastal regions, while the country's economy lost competitiveness in the other sectors. Thousands of young Spaniards were attracted to these two sectors by the lure of easy money, and they did not think twice about leaving schools behind. The result was entirely predictable: Spain's school drop-out rate jumped to the highest level among EU countries (it stands at 24.5% today). Meanwhile, it was all doom and gloom for the country's graduate jobseekers, due mostly to the mismatch between the graduates the universities produced and labour market demand - as the European Commission has stressed on several occasions.

Saddled with a paralysed construction sector and in the midst of a controversial education reform (the seventh in three decades), the Spanish government turned to the EU for help. Madrid's "master plan" to address the plight of this "lost generation" - known as the country's Entrepreneurship and employment strategy 2013-2016' - included over a hundred initiatives. To buttress this plan, Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy managed to negotiate access to 1. …