3:54pm

Thu May 26, 2011
Europe

Youth Protests Sweep Spain As Unemployment Soars

Debt-heavy European countries are again raising anxiety in international financial markets. Greece, Spain, Ireland and Portugal are trying to cut deficits drastically despite their deep recessions.

The austerity measures have fed a growing sense of hopelessness and anger among young people. And in Spain, many young citizens are making their anger heard.

Madrid's central square, Puerta del Sol, is the epicenter of a new and unexpected movement of those who call themselves the indignados — the angry ones.

Chanting, "They do not represent us," protesters denounce a political class they say has ignored the plight of the younger generation.

Employment Crisis

University student Hara Bustos sees a bleak future. "It is very, very difficult to find a job," she says. "Even if I find a job, they will pay like 500 euros and I can't afford a flat with 500 euros ... I'm going to stay in my parents' house until I am 40 — I can't do anything else."

The jobless rate among Spain's generally well-educated young people has reached nearly 45 percent, a record in any industrialized country.

Student Xavier Valencia vents his frustration: "We are getting the best prepared generation we have had in years," he says, "and [they] have to work in a supermarket when they should be a high-placed director for something."

Until a few years ago, Spain was the European Union poster child: self-confident and big-spending. But in 2008, the real estate bubble burst and millions of jobs were lost.

Under international pressure to cut its deficit, the government imposed sharp austerity measures — cutting public service workers' salaries, freezing pensions and drastically reducing public expenditures.

The immediate results: a 20 percent drop in consumption and Europe's highest jobless rate, 21 percent.

Coming Back Home

Commentator Carlos Elordi says up to now, the younger generation has been cushioned from the crisis by an informal safety net — family solidarity.

"Kids have gone back to live with their parents; dad gives his son 300 euros a month," Elordi says. "The uncle helps out a little; the whole family goes to an aunt's for dinner — this system works here, especially in smaller towns."

Many Spaniards are anguished to see their offspring, with degrees in law or engineering for example, forced to return to their parents' home — destined to live much below their just aspirations.

And now, the specter of outright poverty hangs over the Spanish household. Economist Juan Jose Dolado says the number of jobless breadwinners is growing fast.

"I think 8 percent of households in Spain don't have any member working, so 1.4 million households have all their members inactive," he says.

'Crisis Is Reflection'

The new protest movement, born on websites and Twitter, has raised the consciousness of an even broader sector of Spanish society. It has spread to 60 cities — and in the evenings, the crowds at the urban encampments swell to the tens of thousands.

However, Jose Alvarez Junco, professor of political science, is pessimistic the movement will bring about a change of economic policies.

"I hope that the crisis will pass," says Junco, "and one day they will work, but I really don't see any sign. It's a loss, it's a waste of resources with these people who have been very well trained."

Damian Einstein, 34, who has a job and supports the protesters, says sometimes crises are necessary.

"Crisis is change. Crisis is reflection," he says. "So sometimes you have to go two steps backward to go one forward."

Einstein says the movement is here to stay — either in city squares or on the Internet. It has put two main issues on the agenda, he says: How can deficits be cut in the midst of a recession? And what are the social costs of keeping an entire generation on the margins of society?

Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.